By Steve Woodhouse Editor
The Journal Express
---- — There is only one Ronald McDonald in the world.
Whether you saw him at the opening of the new McDonald's in Knoxville a couple months ago, watched a McDonald's video, starring Ronald, as a child, ir when you see him riding on a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade next week, all of these appearances are done by the same man.
Ronald McDonald – the only name he offered – has been working as the famous fast-food clown since 1962. Clowning was nothing new to him at the time, either. His family has been in the business for generations, dating back to circus performances before they emigrated to America from Blackpool, England. Ronald has always loved the family business and still does to this day, but like any clown, the immediate answer to our question was a joke.
“When you look like me, you don't have many options,” Ronald said in a voice that overflowed with the genuine joy and the love of interacting people that was prevalent throughout the entire interview.
Making people happy and seeing people smile have made every year he has put on the makeup extremely rewarding. Each time he has stepped into the big red shoes and bright yellow outfit has been intended to be “just one more,” but that has not happened.
“I keep doing 'one more,'” Ronald said. “I retired twice already and here I am, back in the shoes.”
The first time he stepped away was 13 years ago. He was brought back when a production company called him to participate in a new commercial. The longest he has been out of the makeup was a six-month sabbatical, but he missed talking to people, the crowds and doing what he loves.
This year, Ronald has visited all 50 states and 17 countries.
“When you have feet as big as mine, if you stand in one place too long, you will kill the grass,” Ronald said.
In addition to helping McDonald's celebrate new restaurants, Ronald travels everywhere to promote literacy and character to children. When we spoke with him, he was on his way to Sioux City to address 600 kids, and planned to visit schools in South Dakota and Nebraska the same day. He's been talking to children in schools since 1974.
Though one might not expect it, Ronald McDonald has a Master's Degree in education. Ronald has also successfully raised his own family, including children of his own and many godchildren. One of his godchildren worked with former First Lady Laura Bush on Bush's literacy project.
Outside of this family, Ronald believes all of his fans and audience members to be on a similar level. In his view, he has family all around the world.
Ronald has ties to Iowa, as the individual who put the Journal-Express in touch with him is an Iowa resident. One thing Ronald was looking forward to last weekend was the opportunity this man's son play in the Iowa High School Athletics Association's football playoffs.
The same man often chauffeurs Ronald, who travels in full makeup and costume. Ronald loves doing this as it's another opportunity to make people smile when they drive by and see him. Many have tried to snap photos of him as they pass, and if he sees you, he will gladly offer you a smile and a wave.
He woke up in Des Moines Friday morning at 5 a.m. He went for a jog as Ronald McDonald, because, as he said, it is very seldom when he does not look like himself.
“I think I have the best job in the world,” Ronald said. He does not let McDonald's nutritional naysayers bother him, either.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, people are there to be happy,” Ronald said. “My goal is to make people happy.”
People were happy to see Ronald when he came to Knoxville, and he enjoyed his visit back here. He remembers attending the grand opening of the original restaurant, opened by current owner Cara Van Steenis' father, Orville Graves. Ronald remembered both of them by name.
“It's just a nice store,” Ronald said of Knoxville.
The many generations of Ronald's family who have gone into clowning will have at least one hiccup. None of his children has chosen to fill his red and white socks or enter the family business, but he is none the less proud of them. They are listening to their father by going after what they want to do with their lives.
“If you find what you're passionate about and follow that, you'll have a great life,” Ronald said.