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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Maureen O'Donnell

Donald G. Lubin, Chicago lawyer who had key roles with Ray Kroc and McDonald’s Corp., dead at 88

Attorney Don Lubin. (Provided)

Attorney Donald G. Lubin’s attention to detail led him to a golden opportunity — with the golden arches. It started with a call from McDonald’s Corp. executive June Martino.

“June Martino had called him out of the blue to ask a simple question on behalf of a personal friend who wanted to know the residency requirement to obtain a marriage certificate in Nevada,” author John F. Love wrote in his book “McDonald’s: Behind the Arches.” “Lubin called a county clerk there, and within five minutes telephoned Martino with the answer.

“Impressed with such speedy service, Martino then asked Lubin to draft her will. Soon, that was followed by an even bigger plum — drafting a will for her boss.”

Her boss was the Big Mac man himself: McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc.

Mr. Lubin started handling Kroc’s legal matters, then also did legal work for McDonald’s.

He died last month at 88 at his Highland Park home, according to his son Tom Lubin.

In 1967, at 33, he became the youngest member of McDonald’s board of directors. He stayed 40 years, becoming its longest-serving director.

“They just went off and conquered the hamburger world,” said Harold C. Hirshman, a lawyer with the firm Dentons, where Mr. Lubin practiced for more than 60 years. “He negotiated the sale from the McDonald brothers to Ray. Ray got the right to franchise himself before he knew Don, but the McDonald brothers still had certain rights; it was important that they be purchased. So Don handled that. Don was there when they opened the first store in Russia.” 

Hirshman said Mr. Lubin also guided Kroc on philanthropic giving and the creation of Ronald McDonald Houses, which provide a place for parents to stay near their hospitalized children.

His ties to Kroc led to his counseling J.R. Simplot, a farmer who supplied potatoes for McDonald’s fries. Hirshman said Mr. Lubin also handled legal matters for Sealy Mattress chief Morris Kaplan.

In his office, he had many mementos from the closing of deals, like Ronald McDonald keepsakes and a clock with the golden arches.

“They reflected hundreds of millions of dollars of transactions,” Hirshman said.

In 1974, Mr. Lubin was thrilled when Kroc tapped him to help buy and operate the San Diego Padres Major League Baseball team. A former Brooklyn kid who’d grown up living and dying with the Dodgers, he found himself working with then-Padres president Buzzie Bavasi, a former Dodgers general manager.

According to a family history, when Bavasi asked who was in Kroc’s purchasing group, Mr. Lubin told him: “Mr. Kroc, in McDonald’s stock alone, is worth more than $500 million. He is the group.”

“Here Don was, talking to the man who had built some of the great Dodgers teams of his youth, the man whose teams included Don’s childhood heroes: Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Sandy Koufax,” the history said.

According to his son, among the free agents Mr. Lubin negotiated contracts with were stars Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers and Dave Winfield. 

His father Harry, who grew up in an area of what’s now Poland, arrived in the United States in 1910. By 1917, he was serving in the U.S. Army cavalry. Harry Lubin and his horse Cookie once guarded General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing’s tent on the Texas-Mexico border, according to the history.

The family of Mr. Lubin’s immigrant mother Edith Tannenbaum bribed border guards to flee Odessa, Ukraine, during an era of pogroms.

Both of his parents worked in the garment industry.

Young Don went to James Madison High School in Brooklyn, where he was in the Go-Getters pep club with future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Don Lubin (upper center, wearing glasses) in the Go-Getters pep club at James Madison High School in Brooklyn. Future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a fellow member. According to the Supreme Court’s public information office, Ginsburg is in this photo at the bottom, in the center, with her eyes closed. (Provided)

He worked his way through the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School washing dishes for his fraternity, Phi Epsilon Pi. He got his law degree at Harvard University.

Mr. Lubin said 1954’s televised Army-Sen. Joseph McCarthy hearings helped inspire his career. They culminated in the denunciation of the “red-baiting” senator from Wisconsin, infamous for his claims that communists had infiltrated the government and all levels of American society, with a lawyer for the Army responding to McCarthy’s attacks on one of the lawyer’s colleagues with the indignant question that helped end the senator’s career: “Have you no sense of decency?”

“Lawyers were featured prominently on television, and I thought that looked like a neat profession,” Mr. Lubin once told Sheridan Road magazine.

Don and Amy Lubin — “DonAmy” — on their wedding day. (Provided)

He met his future wife Amy Schwartz through a friend when she was a new student at Wellesley College near Boston and he was just starting law school.

She told the friend who suggested they meet that it wasn’t a good time, that she was having a goodbye lunch with her parents, who’d driven her to school from Chicago. But her mother encouraged her to meet him after lunch.

They were married in 1956, a union they referred to as “DonAmy.” Mr. Lubin always loved the song “Once in Love with Amy.”

After getting his law degree in 1957, Mr. Lubin joined the Chicago firm Sonnenschein Lautmann Levinson Rieser Carlin & Nath, which is now Dentons. He chaired the firm from 1990 to 1996.

The Lubins raised their family in Highland Park in a home that became a setting for the 1992 Alec Baldwin-Meg Ryan movie “Prelude to a Kiss.”

Don and Amy Lubin in 2019 reenacting their first kiss at Beebe Hall at Wellesley College. (Provided)

In 1973, as a Ravinia Festival trustee, Mr. Lubin convinced Kroc to strengthen its finances with a  $1 million donation.

“Don’s influence at Ravinia covered an important period in our history,” said Jeff Haydon, the festival’s president and chief executive officer. “His influence here will be felt for generations.” 

He chaired the Ravinia board from 1982 to 1985 and at one point introduced Luciano Pavarotti at a benefit. Mr. Lubin wrote that, as he was preparing: “I turned to Amy and said, ‘Imagine, I’m talking before 16,000 people tonight.’ ‘And you know what,’ she responded, ‘not one of them came to hear you speak.’

“I have been kidded about it ever since.”

Don and Amy Lubin (Provided)

Mr. Lubin’s philanthropic work included chairing the board of Highland Park Hospital and serving for 40 years on the board of what’s now Rush University Medical Center, where he helped plan a pandemic wing later used for coronavirus cases, his family said.

He also helped organize his law firm’s sponsorship of Legacy Charter School in North Lawndale.

McDonald’s chairman emeritus Andrew J. McKenna, who served on the company’s board with Mr. Lubin, said: “I never heard Don raise his voice. He did everything with dignity and appropriateness. … He had an extraordinary logic about him, and that led you to the right conclusion.”

Don and Amy Lubin at their Highland Park home, which was a setting for the 1992 Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan movie “Prelude to a Kiss.” (Provided)

In addition to his wife and son Tom, Mr. Lubin is survived by his daughter Alice, sons Peter and Richard and eight grandchildren. Services have been held.

Dentons honored Mr. Lubin when it established the Donald Lubin Award to recognize attorneys at the firm who combine legal skill and charity.

“I can’t ever remember him taking personal credit,” Hirshman said. “He would praise his team. He would praise the client. But it was almost as though he had no part in the achievement, which is just completely incorrect. His clients adored him.”

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