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Lee Benson, Deseret News
Over a 45-year period, Clark Stringham built up a chain of 14 McDonald's franchises along the Wasatch Front.

SANDY — Here’s the American dream: Find an opportunity, work hard and make a fortune.

Here’s Clark Stringham’s version of the American dream: Give it all away before you die.

You’ve probably never heard of Clark Stringham. He’s a private person by nature, avoids the headlines, keeps his head down.

But chances are good you’ve supported him because of the line of work he’s in.

He owns McDonald’s franchises.

He was dirt poor when he moved to Utah and started his first one. In 1974 he and his wife, Barbara, sold their house in California, moved to Sandy, lived in a duplex, and used every cent they had to open the McDonald’s located on 700 East just around the corner from 9400 South. That was 45 years ago.

At the time, believe it or not, McDonald’s franchises were having a tough go of it in the Salt Lake area. Salt Lake City ranked as the country’s worst market, with just 52 percent of the national average for store sales. Part of the reason was competition from Dee’s Hamburger stands, featuring the popular Deeburger.

Brent Stringham
A young Clark Stringham, circa 1977, donates funds to help Sandy purchase an ambulance.

The other part of the reason was Clark Stringham wasn’t running them.

Whatever “The Touch” is, he had it. After a year of finding its footing, the Sandy location did so well McDonald’s headquarters granted Clark another franchise, this one in Orem. That one took off, too. One Big Mac and fries kept leading to another, and another, and another, until Clark owned and operated 14 McDonald’s restaurants along the Wasatch Front, stretching from Murray to Payson.

If you think that was like getting a license to print money, you would not be dissuaded of that notion by Clark.

“I didn’t know you could make that much money,” he says.

It wasn’t easy, he is quick to point out. Running a McDonald’s empire requires long hours and plenty of hands-on attention. But the prosperity gave Clark another kind of freedom — the freedom to give back.

He took the “Billions Served” on the Golden Arches sign to mean humanity instead of hamburgers.

“What the money allowed me to do was go into the community,” he says.

He noticed that Sandy didn’t have a Chamber of Commerce. So he started one in 1977 and became its first president. He saw that Sandy didn’t have a hospital, so in 1984 he was one of nine people who served on the founding board of Alta View Hospital. When he was asked by the late Chase Peterson, president of the University of Utah, why Utah didn’t have a Ronald McDonald House, he helped found the one on South Temple that was dedicated in 1988.

He supported and sponsored the Jordan Valley School for the Handicapped. He was the first president of the fundraising arm for the Jordan School District. He helped found, and fund, the Sandy Boys and Girls Club.

There’s more. But the problem with coming up with a comprehensive list of everything Clark Stringham has been involved with philanthropically is that, as his son Brent says, “you’re going to miss something, because he does a lot of things on the quiet.”

Lee Benson, Deseret News
Clark Stringham, second from right, enjoys a laugh with son Brent, left, daughter Sherri and wife Barbara.

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The only reason Clark is willing to talk about any of it now is because it might inspire someone else.

That, and because he’s probably got less than a year to live.

Nine years ago, Clark, who turned 80 this year, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It had already metastasized. In the years since, he’s undergone all the treatments you can think of, and a few more. Giving credit to his doctors at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, he thinks he may have set some kind of record for surviving at Stage 4.

But the battle keeps taking its toll. The chemo has turned his hair white, his eyes water, his taste buds are shot, he’s as unstable now as he was stable back in 1958 when he played end on the BYU football team that beat the University of Utah 14-6.

“We’re running out of gas,” he says, using the royal we.

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He’s still busy. He still goes to the office every morning, albeit for half days. He’s made sure his six children and Barbara, his wife of 57 years, are squared away. But he’s sold off all but five of his McDonald’s franchises and with the proceeds opened a charitable trust to support a variety of causes, from the Huntsman Cancer Institute to Primary Children’s Hospital to the Sandy Boys and Girls Club to a bunch nobody knows about. When all is said and done, his hope is that he breaks even.

He’s also working on a private biography he’s titled, “Trying to Make a Difference.”

In it, he writes about getting to know Ray Kroc, the man who turned McDonald’s into McDonald’s, before Kroc died in 1984. He wasn’t the tyrant the movies make him out to be, Clark says, but someone who cared about taking care of people and the places they live.

“His mantra was ‘Give back to the community,’” says Clark. “I learned from that. I took that very seriously.”