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Turner’s life arches from burgers to jazz

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As a young man in Des Moines, Fred Turner learned that you can’t fit a cookie truck that’s 9 1/2 feet tall under a bridge with 7 feet of clearance. “Cookies everywhere” is how he sums up the experience. His employer for that summer job was his father, who had a calm, logical reaction to the incident. “He said, ‘Bud, you’re fired.'”

At Drake University, Turner embarked on a pre-med curriculum, only to learn that you can’t pass organic chemistry while concentrating on your social life.

Oh, well. “I would not have made a good M.D.,” he said.

Then in Chicago in 1956, Turner found his perfect career path when he met future business legend Ray Kroc.

The plan was that Turner, his brother and some in-laws would join together to buy a franchise from Kroc’s new fast-food restaurant company, McDonald’s Corp.

The plan changed. “I quickly figured out that I wanted to go my own way, and Ray knew that,” Turner recalled. “He offered me a job at $480 a month.” It was better pay than he got during his two years in the Army, “but you had to save some cigarette butts at the end of the month.”

The plan changed some more. “After I was in McDonald’s for two or three months, I wanted to be president,” he said.

Bold talk for a failed cookie truck driver, but the dream came true. Turner became the operations vice president in 1958 and just kept climbing. “In 1967, Ray told me I was going to be the president in a year,” Turner said. And so he was. In his first year as president, the company opened 100 restaurants. In his second year, 200. The trend continued until annual growth leveled off at 500. The company had 15 units when Turner signed on; today it operates more than 31,000 restaurants in 118 countries.

Billions of hamburgers later, Turner is 75 years old, retired and a widower. The young girl he fell in love with at Drake, Patricia Shurt-leff, the one who accepted his Sigma Phi Epsilon pin, passed away at the age of 67 in 2000.

Turner still consults for McDonald’s – but there’s more time now for interests that outrank french fries.

And so he came to Des Moines last week to make a generous donation of $1 million to Drake University, to be used as an endowment for a professorship in jazz studies.

Why jazz studies? Turner loves music, including the works of the jazz legends – Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington – and grew to love it even more because Patty was a piano-, guitar- and ukulele-playing professional musician. While Turner traveled the world and helped assemble a huge corporation, Patty played in all-woman bands.

So he’s quite pleased to know that her name will be part of the music tradition at Drake. And he’s proud of the Patty Turner Senior Center in their adopted hometown of Deerfield, Ill., a facility to which he also donated $1 million.

Turner doesn’t get to Des Moines often these days. He took the opportunity to visit his brother’s grave – then choked up for a moment in the telling.

But it’s not all nostalgia and never will be, because there’s always McDonald’s.

In December, Turner will fly to Munich to work with the company’s European Food Improvement Team. Yes, the debate still rages over whether to keep the American-style dill pickle in the hamburgers of Germany, the home of Hamburg, or switch to the kind of pickle they prefer over there.

And another thing is bugging Turner, too: He thinks the quarter-pounder bun is being sliced too high, thus creating a dry sensation in the bottom of the mouth.

Jazz is where you improvise. Business is where you analyze.

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