Schools at 150: McDonald's top chief hails from Davenport
McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner is a 1962 graduate of Davenport West High School. (CONTRIBUTED PHOTO)

He started out like so many other teenagers, working as an entry-level crew person at the old McDonald’s on Brady Street in Davenport.

But Jim Skinner — a 1962 graduate of Davenport West High School — didn’t stop there.

After serving in the U.S. Navy, he eventually climbed the McDonald’s corporate ladder, higher and higher, until he reached the tip-top of the largest fast-food restaurant chain in the world.

Now, this local-boy-turned-CEO of McDonald’s, calls his story a prime example of “the American dream,” which he said is still a possibility for anyone flipping burgers at McDonald’s.

“It’s not only possible, it’s a reality,” Skinner said in a rare telephone interview with the Quad-City Times, adding that half of the corporation’s top management and many of its owner-operators started out as crew members. “This is the American dream in an American company that is not exactly ‘what you see is what you get.’”

What you do see: A huge fast-food chain with almost $70 billion in worldwide sales at 32,000 restaurants in 118 countries.

And its leader is a man who grew up in Davenport, which he calls a “strong-shouldered Midwestern city with Midwestern values.”

The 64-year-old Skinner credits his success to learning those values in the Quad-Cities, where his family moved from New York City when he was just a few years old. They started out living in Rock Island but soon moved to Davenport, where he attended schools until he graduated from high school.

Why the Quad-Cities? His father was a bricklayer by trade, and Skinner thinks the family moved to follow work opportunities for him.

“I really got my work ethic from my father,” Skinner said. “He was never out of work. He got up every morning and grinded it out every day. I have been successful because of that.”

All these years later,

Skinner said he still has “fond memories of Davenport and the Quad-Cities” but hasn’t lived in the area since high school.

Road to the top

After working only about six months at the Brady Street store, which no longer operates as a McDonald’s, he graduated and moved away to serve in the Navy for 10 years. He studied electronics and ended up re-enlisting once.

He met his wife in Chicago, marrying her in 1969. And then, in the early 1970s, he was attending night school (he never finished college) when he started thinking seriously about whether he wanted to make the Navy his career or whether he wanted a different career path.

It was about that time that a fellow Navy man said something that changed the course of Skinner’s life, he said.

“We were going to stay in and become officers, but he said, ‘If I wasn’t going to stay in the Navy, I would go to work for McDonald’s,’” Skinner said.

And that sounded like a pretty good idea, he said.

So, in 1971, Skinner did a walk-on interview on a Wednesday and then started working on a Friday as a manager trainee at a McDonald’s in Carpentersville, Ill., in the Chicago area.

Skinner rose through the corporation from there, holding numerous leadership positions before becoming CEO in November 2004, after the deaths of the corporation’s two former chief executive officers. The men were good friends of Skinner’s and the losses created a “tough time for McDonald’s,” he said.

“But I think it was a good thing for someone like me was around,” he said, explaining his experience with the corporation over many years.

Before landing the top job, Skinner served as vice chairman of the board and had management responsibility for operations in Asia, Middle East and Africa and Latin America, in addition to overseeing most corporate staff functions.

Also, since the beginning of 2004, he was accountable for McDonald’s Japan Limited, the corporation’s second-largest market with nearly 4,000 restaurants.

He also earlier served as president and CEO of the McDonald’s Restaurant Group, with operating accountability for the company’s more than 30,000 restaurants in 118 countries at the time.

In the 1990s, he was a senior vice president and relationship partner for McDonald’s international management team, overseeing development in Central Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India.

Skinner now serves on the board of directors of McDonald’s Corp., headquartered in Oak Brook, Ill., as well as the boards of Ronald McDonald House Charities, the Walgreen Co. and Illinois Tool Works.

He said he and his wife live about a five-minute drive away from his Oak Brook offices.

Reminiscing about his roots

The Skinners don’t visit the Quad-Cities often, even though Jim Skinner still has family in the area, including a brother and his stepmother. His father, Leon, died at age 84 in October 2006 at the Davenport Good Samaritan Center.

Skinner said his siblings also have been successful in life, thanks to “the work ethic” learned at home and in Davenport schools.

He attended Davenport High School — the city’s only high school at the time — until the new high school opened, and he transferred to Davenport West.

One of his favorite things from those days: wrestling on the high school’s team. Standing at 5 feet 2 inches tall, Skinner said the sport suited him well, and he made several good buddies — who also rose to the top in their professions — from that team.

He specifically mentioned former U.S. Rep. Jim Leach, a Republican who represented eastern Iowa for 30 years and now teaches at Princeton University in New Jersey. The two were high school wrestlers together, although Leach was two years older than Skinner.

Leach said they haven’t stayed in touch closely over the years, but “there’s an aspect of growing up with kids that you always maintain a fondness for them.”

“Jim was one of those really, truly decent young people who you were just very confident would do well in life, and you wanted to see do well in life,” Leach said. “He was just always someone you wanted to think of as a friend.”

Another former classmate from the class of 1962, Curt Kiser, said he remembers that Skinner did not join him on the wrestling team their senior year, because he “really needed to work.” That’s when he got his first job at McDonald’s.

They rekindled their high school friendship in the 1970s, when Kiser — a Tallahassee, Fla., lawyer — was serving in the Florida legislature. They still see each other now and then, he said.

“He’s so serious now. It takes a while talking to him to get him to loosen up a little bit,” Kiser said, chuckling.

“When he was a high school kid, he was fun-loving, talking about dating and girls and football games,” he added. “Gosh, when you’re around him now, he talks about having meetings and dinners with Warren Buffett and other people you read about in the news, and he’s real serious about it.”

Yet, it’s that seriousness — that intense level of drive and passion about the business — that helps him succeed, Kiser said about his old friend.

“He really is a star,” he said.

Kay Luna can be contacted at (563) 383-2323 or kluna@qctimes.com.

Editor’s note: Kay Luna’s family is involved in the McDonald’s business in the Quad-City region. However, Luna — a full-time reporter for the Times — “just eats there” and does not work for the family’s franchises, she said.

How big is the burger giant?

Even in these tough economic times, McDonald’s Corp. remains the world’s largest restaurant company, posting recent sales figures that beat some analysts’ estimates about how well the chain would do, according to Bloomberg wire service.

In its most recent report from October, McDonald’s global sales at restaurants open at least 13 months climbed 8.2 percent, and U.S. same-store sales increased 5.3 percent, the company reported.

As consumers curbed spending, McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner — a Davenport native — pointed toward the chain’s $1 menu, new specialty coffee in the U.S. and new burgers and sandwiches in Europe, for helping sales. The return of a Monopoly game promotion also helped sales in the U.S. at that time.

Yet, McDonald’s often is the target of criticism from people claiming the chain’s fast food perpetuates obesity. Think “Super Size Me!,” the 2004 documentary by Morgan Spurlock, who documented his “all McDonald’s diet” and weight gain.

“Nobody likes to see their neighbor do well. Let’s be real,” Skinner said. “People like to be critics of positive things. And McDonald’s has done more relative to high-quality food for customers at a great value than any other business in the industry, and we’ll hold up well against people who say we don’t have healthy options on our menu. We’re the largest seller of apples in America.”

Among many efforts to spread the word about McDonald’s food quality and healthy options, the corporation recently has recruited mothers — who keep online journals — to go behind the scene of the company’s operations and meet executives and then communicate what they see on the Web (with video, too).

Skinner said McDonald’s has “no false motives” in taking this approach, despite what some people might say.

“We have to tell the story,” he said. “The best way is to have the average consumer to tell the story, to tell it like it is. And yet, we’re criticized for that as well. They think people are drinking the Kool-Aid now. But it’s been received well.”

— Kay Luna

‘One of many impressive students’

Nancy Jacobsen is too young to have known McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner when he was a student at Davenport West High School, where she is principal.

But she has known for a long time that Skinner was a graduate and says he is “one of many impressive graduates we have from West.”

He was like many of the teens who attend the school now, working at their local McDonald’s, she said.

Jacobsen hopes those students realize they, too, can do whatever they put their minds to do.

“Regardless of what career path their life takes them, they all contribute to society in very meaningful ways,” she said.

“That’s a message not only for students, but also for staff,” Jacobsen said. “You never know what you’ve taught a student, either directly by instruction or in modeling behaviors … You never know how you’re going to impact them.”

— Kay Luna


Patricia White Barry

Patricia White Barry, a 1940 graduate of Davenport High School, had a distinguished career as an actress on Broadway, in motion pictures and television.

She received five Emmy nominations for her work in television, where she made more than 2,000 appearances on popular shows ranging from “Gunsmoke” and “Twilight Zone” to “Dallas,” “Knot’s Landing” and “Murder She Wrote.”

She had long-running roles on daytime television’s “Days of our Lives,” “All My Children” and “Guiding Light.” On TV movies-of-the-week, she appeared with Ronald Reagan, Mary Tyler Moore and Sid Caesar. She has served as president or chairman of numerous film organizations, and her honors include the Lucy Award for her work on behalf of women in television and movies.

She signed a Columbia Pictures contract immediately after graduating from Stephens College. After occasional leads in such films as “The Wreck of the Hesperus” (1948), she became one of the most visible actresses in 1950s television, remaining active into the 1980s. She married producer/director Philip Barry Jr., son of the famed playwright.

Roger Craig

Roger Craig, a 1978 graduate of Davenport Central High School, is ranked as one of the greatest running backs in the history of the National Football League.

He helped the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl championships in 1985, 1989 and 1990. When he retired in 1994, he had caught more passes than any running back who ever played in the NFL.

Craig proved he was unstoppable as a Blue Devil running back in a game against Cedar Rapids Washington. He carried 41 times for 353 yards, reeled off scoring runs of 59, 65, 30 and 31 yards and scored all of Central’s points in a 29-28 playoff loss. He finished his final prep season with 1,465 yards rushing.

He was drafted in the second round of the 1983 NFL draft from the University of Nebraska, where he once held the record for longest run from scrimmage (94 yards), set during a 1981 game against Florida State University.

Dana Davis

Dana Davis went from theatrical productions at Davenport North High School to success as a television and movie actress.

Davis, a 1997 graduate of North, perhaps is best known for her role as Monica Dawson on the television series “Heroes.” She previously had television roles in “The Nine,” “Veronica Mars, “The O.C.” and “Gilmore Girls.”

She acted in such productions as “The Wizard of Oz,” “Damn Yankees, “The Miracle Worker” and “Into the Woods” at North before going to Loyola Marymount University in California, where she earned her degree in music in 2001.

She made her television debut on “The Steve Harvey Show” and followed up with a recurring role in the FOX series “Boston Public.” Her first regular role in a television series was as Felicia Jones in the ABC series “The Nine.” She also has appeared in such movies as “Coach Carter” and “Raise Your Voices,” in which she played Hillary Duff’s roommate at a high school for the performing arts.

Robert N. Davis

Robert N. Davis graduated from Davenport Central High School in 1971 to become a law professor and later a federal judge.

He is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, where he reviews claims for benefits related to service-connected disabilities, survivorship and education payments.

At Central, Davis served as class president, played baseball, sang in the glee club, served on the student council and was on the debate team. After graduating from the University of Hartford and Georgetown University Law Center, he practiced law with several federal agencies and then taught law at the University of Mississippi School of Law and Stetson University College of Law before his appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in December 2004.

Davis also attained the rank of commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve, where he served a tour in Bosnia and a stint as an intelligence officer with Central Command Headquarters in Florida after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Susan Glaspell

Susan Glaspell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, first tested her writing talent at Davenport High School, where one of her stories was included in a sampling of student work intended for display at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

After graduating from Davenport High in 1894 and earning a degree at Drake University, she worked as a reporter for newspapers in Des Moines and Davenport. She also wrote a column for The Davenport Weekly Outlook magazine.

She published her first novel, “The Glory of the Conquered,” in 1909. In 1916, she published her first and most successful play, “Trifles.” It is based on a murder trial she covered in 1899 while working as a reporter in Des Moines.

In 1931, she received the Pulitzer Prize for her play “Alison’s House,” based on the life of poet Emily Dickinson. She wrote nine novels, 14 plays and 50 short stories, essays and articles. Her 1928 novel, “Brook Evans,” was made into the movie “The Right to Love.”

Jim Leach

James “Jim” Leach served 15 consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

He graduated in 1960 with the last graduating class at the old Davenport High School, now known as Davenport Central High School.

During his 30 years in Congress from Jan. 3, 1977, to Jan. 3, 2007, he chaired the Banking and Financial Services Committee, the Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

He authored legislation on a wide range of issues. He perhaps is best known for the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, which opened up competition among banks, securities companies and insurance companies.

He was a state wrestling champion at Davenport High and lost only one match during a four-year collegiate career at Princeton University, where today he is a visiting professor of public and international affairs. He was appointed as an emissary for President-elect Barack Obama at an international summit held last month in Washington, D.C.

Jock Mahoney

The athletic prowess that Jock Mahoney first showed at Davenport High School took him to Hollywood, where he excelled as a stuntman before becoming an actor.

He doubled for John Wayne, Errol Flynn and Gregory Peck before he was signed as the lead in the 78-episode, 1951 television series “The Range Rider.” He also starred in the 1950s television series “Yancy Derringer” and in two Tarzan movies. At age 44, he was the oldest actor to play Tarzan when he appeared in “Tarzan’s Three Challenges” in 1963.

His last movie was the 1978 film “The End,” in which he appeared with his stepdaughter, Sally Fields, and Burt Reynolds.

Born Jacques O’Mahoney, he graduated in 1938 from Davenport High School, where he played football, basketball and was involved in many other student activities. He continued in football and basketball at the University of Iowa, where he was an outstanding swimmer. During World War II, he was a Marine Corps fighter pilot and instructor. He died of a stroke in 1989.

Katie Soenksen

Sadness gripped the halls of Davenport North High School in 2007 when word came of the death on May 2 in West Baghdad, Iraq, of U.S. Army Pfc. Katie Soenksen, who had just graduated two years earlier.

Soenksen was killed by a roadside bomb.

While at North, Soenksen participated in choir, softball and the ROTC program. She enlisted in the Army immediately after graduation.

In a Web site entry written just months before her death, Soenksen wrote: “ Being deployed is one of the hardest things to do. But being here makes me realize how good we have it in America.”

She was buried with full military honors at National Cemetery, Rock Island Arsenal.

A full-length woodcarving of Soenksen is on permanent display at the school.

Ginalie Bein Swaim

Ginalie Bein Swaim broke into journalism at Davenport West High School, where she was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, the Beak ’n Eye, and the valedictorian of the class of 1969.

She credits her high school journalism instructor, the late Rod Vahl, with providing her the foundation that helped her land the top job at “Iowa Heritage Illustrated,” where she has been editor for 22 years. The quarterly magazine, a publication of the State Historical Society of Iowa, “presents history the way it happened — with life, action and color,” according to the society.

She took the 88-year-old publication from a small booklet with a hard-to-pronounce name, “The Palimpsest,” to the present big, colorful showcase of Iowa history. The upcoming issue features biographical sketches of famous Iowans of the past century, including Davenport native and Pulitzer Prize winning author Susan Glaspell.

Swaim, 57, majored in English at the University of Iowa, where she earned Phi Beta Kappa honors. From 1984-86, she was editor of “The Goldfinch,” a State Historical Society of Iowa publication for children.

Randy Wayne White

Randy Wayne White is a New York Times best-selling author who first honed his craft during a journalism class at Davenport Central High School.

A sports standout at Central, where he graduated in 1968, he worked for the Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press for four years and obtained his captain’s license to pilot commercial boats.

He bought a used charter boat and spent 13 years working as a fishing guide at the Tarpon Springs Marina at Sanibel Island, Fla. On the side, he wrote crime fiction.

In 1990, he published the first of his 15 Doc Ford thrillers, “Sanibel Flats,” whose central character is a retired National Security Agency agent working as a marine biologist on the Gulf Coast of southern Florida. It was chosen by the American Independent Mystery Booksellers Association as one of the Hundred Favorite Mysteries of the 20th century.

White lives on Pine Island, Fla., where he is active in civic affairs and the restaurant Doc Ford’s Sanibel Rum Bar and Grill on Sanibel Island.

—Compiled by John Willard, Special to Quad-City Times

One big birthday bash

The Davenport Community Schools’ official celebration will be Tuesday, when students and staff across the district will chow down on 125 cakes during their regular lunch periods. The district’s food service — with some help from culinary arts students at Davenport Central High School — are preparing the cakes.

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