Robert E. Rhea, 78, of Paradise Valley, AZ, a pioneering McDonald’s franchisee, whose roots trace back to the Company’s earliest days, died surrounded by family, on December 14, 2010 at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI. He was born January 16, 1932 in Aurora, IL, the son of Everett and Florence (Nester) Rhea. He graduated from East Aurora High School and attended Drake University, Des Moines, IA.
In 1961, Mr. Rhea opened his first McDonald’s restaurant in the Cleveland, OH area. He subsequently built two more stores and acquired a fourth before expanding to Philadelphia. In 1974, Mr. Rhea was designated as McDonald’s joint venture partner in England, helping to expand the McDonald’s brand worldwide. He sold his U.S. holdings and moved his family to London where the first McDonald’s was opened in London, England. For the next 12 years, Mr. Rhea’s joint venture opened more than 250 McDonald’s locations in the United Kingdom. He retired in 1986.
In his book “Behind the Golden Arches”, John F. Love, mentions how the Brits initially rebuffed the American-styled burger restaurants. Rhea subsequently set very high standards for store decor and layout that transcended the fast food industry. His combination of very high standards and effective television campaigns made McDonald’s in England a smashing success. He will be remembered as a multifaceted man with great vision and the ability to execute his plans. He was a strong, egalitarian leader who, along with his fellow owner-operators, helped build sustaining operational co-ops in both Cleveland and Philadelphia. Mr. Rhea was a great lover of the outdoors and was a member of Brooks’s Club in London, The Order of Tasse Du Vin and Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity. He was also a devotee and supporter of The Arts.
Mr. Rhea was preceded in death by his parents, Everett and Florence (Nester) Rhea. He is survived by his wife Ida (DeBartolo), sons Robert E. Rhea, Jr. (Patty Sue Turner), Belvidere IL. and Charles G. Rhea (Debra Green), Glencoe IL; Three grandchildren: Alexandra Rhea, Terence Rhea and Katherine Rhea; Sisters-in-law Anna Sheagren, Mary (Paul) Preston and Lynette McAley. Mr. Rhea is also survived by his nieces and nephews: Sam Sheagren, Jennie (Sheagren) Maloney, Genna Preston, Joanna Preston, Elizabeth McAley, Matthew McAley and several grand nieces and nephews.
Visitation Sunday, Dec. 19, 3 – 7 p.m. at Drake & Son Funeral Home, 5303 N. Western Ave., Chicago. Funeral Mass will be held Monday, Dec. 20, 11 a.m. at Holy Name Cathedral, 735 N. State St., Chicago. Interment private. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made in Mr. Rhea’s name to the American Diabetes Association, 30 N. Michigan Ave., # 2015, Chicago, IL 60602-3611 or Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center, Office of Philanthropy, 2900 W. Oklahoma Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53215. Arrangements by Drake & Son Funeral Home, 773-561-6874.