The Root of the Community
by Steve Charles
July 10, 2008
Bob Charles loves to make things grow.
The Burger Baron of Boulder County began his career raising roses in the desert. He planted paloverdes and mesquite along Arizona highways. He taught prisoners the best way to root a twig and nurture it into a tree.
He sees nothing altruistic in any of it.
"It was a lot of fun," he says, and he can’t keep from smiling as he says it.
Years before he co-developed the Happy Meal at one of his 13 McDonald’s restaurants in Boulder, Colorado, and invented the two-lane drive-through, Charles was a graduate student in horticulture serving on the faculty at the University of Arizona. When not in class, he took on research projects that indulged his passion for growing things and honed his knack for solving problems.
He inherits the latter skill from his father.
"My dad never finished high school," Charles says. His father earned his diploma through a program similar to today’s GED. "But he said, ‘If you want something, all you have to do is work for it.’ He had the ability to walk out, see a problem, then just sit down and figure out how to solve it."
Charles did exactly that when the U of A wanted to plant a rose test garden in the early 1960s but wasn’t sure where to turn. The eager grad student leaped at the challenge.
"We got about five or six rose companies to donate 300 roses in all, and we planted them in 30 plots, 10 roses in each," Charles says. Today those plots are the Reid Park Rose Test Garden, one of Tucson’s "must see" attractions.
About the same time, Charles was charged with finding suitable trees and shrubs to line the miles of highway leading east and west out of Phoenix.
"I couldn’t get all the plants I needed, so I got an import license and was getting seeds from New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa," he says, as if the idea should have occurred to just about anyone.
Then he convinced state prison officials to start a nursery.
"We had a practically unlimited supply of one-gallon cans from the mess hall, and the prisoners and I built a mist house. I taught them plant propagation, and we grew the plants for Arizona’s highways in the state prisons."
When it came time to plant seeds in the miles of "desert pavement" along those highways, Charles found another collaborator.
"I had to scarify these seeds before planting, so I boiled them in pots in the highway department garage. I told the guys what I needed to do to get the seeds in the ground, and they were willing to help."
Picture a native Midwesterner in the Arizona sun, dropping handfuls of seeds into holes chopped into the ground by a yellow backhoe just in front of him, with a highway department water truck following along to soak the seeds—for miles along the highway.
"Like a little Johnny Appleseed." Charles laughs and closes his eyes, savoring the memory. But the prisoner/nursery workers figure most prominently when he thinks back on those days.
"Several people from my nursery got jobs in the Forest Service—they learned a skill they could use to get employed later. All because I needed to grow my own stuff for the highway.
"And I couldn’t get it done any other way; we all had to do it."
Bob Charles sees the world in terms of "we." It’s the prevalent pronoun when he speaks, a gift more rare than his ability to grow plants, solve problems, or even to make money. A natural extension of his study of plants and how they grow, it enables him to see the ways people and organizations can come together to make life better for both. Like the shared root structures of aspen "communities" that dot the mountains above his adopted hometown.
And the word "fun" keeps popping up.
Such fun has brought an improved quality of life to Boulder, accolades from city leaders, and a sense of serenity to the man one colleague calls "a philanthropist in the true sense of the word…time, money, and heart are freely given because he loves people and loves the community."
On a crisp, cool late September morning I meet Bob Charles in a liquor store. His liquor store—Liquor Mart, which he bought with several partners in the late 1990s: 30,000 square feet full of any hard liquor, fine wine, domestic, imported, or craft-brewed beer you could possibly want. The stuff of legend for University of Colorado students and many locals, it’s packed practically shoulder-to-shoulder during the Christmas season, one staff member tells me.
"That’s a strange one," I say, pointing to a bottle of Flying Dog ale, not realizing that Colorado is the microbrewery capital of the U.S. I count 12 breweries in Boulder, there are hundreds in the state, and almost 60 small family-owned wineries.
"Oh, that’s one of our best sellers," Bob explains before urging one of his staff who is up on a ladder to "be careful."
"All of our people have been to school on what they sell, to classes on wine and beer. They really know their craft."
So does their boss. Charles points out the ways the bottles are arranged in the "spirits" section.
"We line up everything by size; right to left, large to small," he says, reaching for the largest bottle with his right hand. "That way, you’re not likely to skip over that large bottle and grab the smaller bottle on the left. Evil, eh!" He grins.
When I tell him I’m left-handed and would be more likely to pick up the smaller bottle, he laughs.
"So am I!
"We try to merchandise here the way I learned at McDonald’s, and we’ve had a good time."
Running a McDonald’s is like running a liquor store?
"We’re talking customer service, customer service, customer service. You won’t see a customer looking lost here; if we see someone walking around, we ask, ‘Can I help you?’ Everyone here knows where everything is—you’re not likely to stump them."
I ask how his career swerved from horticulture to hamburgers to Liquor Mart: What’s the connection? He says he’d hoped to stay in Tucson after he got his master’s but couldn’t get the director of parks job because of the government bureaucracy. The one thing he knew was that he wanted to work outdoors, so he ran a test farm for Geigy Chemical in New Jersey until his innovations brought him to the front office. That’s when he and Judy decided it was time to return west. They moved to Boulder, where Judy’s parents had put down roots and owned the original McDonald’s there. It was 1963 and they needed a manager, so Bob took a chance at something completely new.
"I would have done anything to get back to the west," Charles says.
And the horticulture?
"It went right out the window," he says.
Not exactly. He "aggressively landscaped" his restaurants, much to the amusement of the McDonald’s Chicago home office. Then he got grade school kids involved in his little green revolution.
"The kids would grow the flowers, then we’d plant them here, then the parents would bring them down to see the flowers, so I was always merchandising. A sinister guy!" He laughs.
"But it was a work project that had some meaning for the kids, and I paid the schools for it so they could afford more for their greenhouse and grow more stuff for themselves at school. The teachers would invite me over, and the kids learned a lot—how to take care of the plants every day, how to feed them. It was a good experience for all of us."
Prisoners in Tucson, highway department workers in Phoenix, or grade schoolers in Boulder—Charles can get anyone to collaborate with him.
And Liquor Mart isn’t his first retail liquor experience. He was house manager for his fraternity when he was at Wabash.
"I had the beer concession at the Delt house," he says. "We had Stroh’s. I bought it for 12 and one-half cents per bottle."
Charles suggests we get some lunch and leads me out of the store past a wall-high logo and scene from one of the nation’s top breweries.
"We needed that wall painted, and they like the advertising and were willing to pay for it," he explains. "Works out for both of us."
Boulder is a city of almost 100,000 people, but walking it with Charles feels more like a stroll in a small town on Main Street. Our three-block walk to the Pearl Street open-air mall is punctuated with "Good morning, Bob" and "How’ve you been?" A middle-aged woman calls out from her car, and Charles waves, then pauses in the crosswalk to talk.
The Lazy Dog Sports Bar and Grille is Bob’s choice for "a little local color and culture," and he greets the pretty 20-something waitress with a line about the weather before mentioning that he’s on the advisory board for the college of music. She feigns interest.
"So I know that you’re one of the restaurants that sponsors our marching band out here every Friday before games," he adds. Then the brunette lights up.
"It’s so cool, it’s so loud, it’s so much fun," she says. "It hypes everyone up, like a real college town." The restaurant runs specials during the band’s appearances on the mall, which draw thousands downtown.
"Well, I just want to tell you how neat it is that you sponsor that event," he says. "Thank you."
The School of Music and the School of Education at the University of Colorado; the Ronald McDonald House; the Imagine Foundation; the University of Arizona Alumni Association: Charles sits on more boards than a carpenter’s level.
"I like to have a lot of things going on at once," he says, then laughs. "Judy calls me her little tornado."
That "little tornado" built partnerships between the U of A athletic department and the alumni association, where Charles is chair. It helped build the Imagine Foundation, which Charles founded and which provides support services to more than 2,300 people of all ages who have developmental delays or cognitive disabilities. Charles is particularly excited about the group’s SmartHome and the technology that will enable those with disabilities to live more independently.
"As long as you can breathe and sit upright in a wheelchair, you’ll be able to turn on the TV, operate a computer, turn the lights on and off. It is going to really be something," says Charles, who contributed $100,000 to the project.
In the early 70s, he and his fellow McDonald’s owners also bankrolled and built the state’s first Ronald McDonald House, the third in the nation, and they will open a brand new facility this year.
Charles is excited by the School of Education’s Science Discovery Program and its initiative to put a "science lab on wheels" to visit rural schools in the state. And he and Judy have endowed a chair at the School of Music, one of the first such endowments in that department.
"Most of what I do is directed toward education," he explains, recalling the McPride Program he ran at his stores and hopes to see revived.
"We took at-risk kids and had them, their parents, and the high school counselors sign the contract—a four-way commitment to the kid’s success. They could only work 14 hours a week at our store, and we called the school once a week to make sure they’d been in school."
Time magazine wrote about the program in 2001.
"The principal told us that every kid in that program graduated—we had a 100 percent success rate for kids who had basically been high school dropouts," Charles says.
Charles has an uncanny ability to pull together just the right people for the job.
"I don’t do anything myself," he insists. "I’m just on the boards. I’m a tool they use to try to get more people involved."
In addition to the McDonald’s stores that earned him his "Burger Baron" moniker, Charles has owned a bakery, a car dealership, and a nursery; he’s sold all but the Liquor Mart, and considers himself officially retired. Which just opens up more time for more projects.
"I don’t have time to work." He laughs. "It would get in the way of all my messing around with these other things.
"If you retire quickly, you go brain dead. I know guys out at the club who retired five or ten years ago, and all they can talk about is what happened in the past. They don’t know anything that’s happening currently. I can’t imagine being that way. I have too many things I’m interested in trying to do.
"It’s not that you owe anybody anything, but these other things are really fun to do. If you can contribute in some way, why not? I don’t have the answers to all their problems, but there are good people there, and if I can be the resident nudge, why not? You’ve got to do everything you can to help people maximize their potential. You’ve got to do these things, because they’re the right thing to do."
The Charleses now have a home in Boulder and one in Tucson, where Bob first planted those roses almost 50 years ago.
"I’d love to spend more time in Arizona," he says. "But Boulder is my home. All the friends and relationships here, and the university. It really is a lot like a small town—the same people involved in so many of the things going on."
We drive to his place on the outskirts of Boulder, a comfortable ranch-style home with picture windows revealing a spectacular view of the Front Range. Of course it’s beautifully landscaped, so I ask if I can take a photograph of Bob in this garden he’s created.
"Oh, my gosh!" He smiles. "I didn’t bring my talc." He describes his role in a 1970s instructional film McDonald’s made for owners, how the make-up artist repeatedly dabbed powder on his balding head to deal with a reflection problem.
"Self-effacing." That’s one of three traits mentioned most often in print by those Charles has worked with. "Exudes approachability" and "earnest about the projects he’s involved with" also come up.
"He sees a need and finds a way to answer it," wrote the woman who nominated Charles when he was given the Life-time Achievement Award by the town’s Chamber of Commerce. Words not unlike the way Charles described his father.
But laughter punctuates his sentences. And that’s what he’s doing as we walk to the backyard to see his latest project—an enormous koi pond, complete with water-fall and a creek like a miniature mountain stream.
"Now watch this," he says, grabbing a handful of koi food and tossing it into the pond.
"There you are," he says as multi-colored carp swim out from under the walkway I’m standing on.
"They’re really quite beautiful," he says of these fish that, with life spans of 30 or 40 years, will probably outlive him.
"You should have seen how small they were when we got them," he says grabbing another handful of food.
"You’ve already fed enough," Judy calls out from the steps above. "They’ll get too big for the pond."
He smiles at her, then sprinkles a few more morsels over the water, brushing the rest off his hands and pausing in the afternoon light to watch them swim. He tends to them the way he tends his garden, the way he tends his community.
Roses, trees, businesses, universities, towns, careers, the hopes and dreams of children, college students, and those with disabilities—or even big goldfish—Bob Charles loves to make thins grow.*