Long before McDonald's became an international powerhouse and pop culture icon, the fledgling hamburger chain, with its sit-down-only restaurants, drew young entrepreneurs like Jay Chadima into the business.

Chadima, who in 1958 left a modest job at the St. Paul stockyards to heed his brother-in-law's advice and join the management staff at the St. Louis Park McDonald's — one of the state's first — later became the most successful Minnesota owner/operator of the franchise. He rose quickly after opening his first store on Prosperity and Maryland avenues on St. Paul's East Side, said family and friends, helping countless locals get starter jobs.

"I don't know how, in 1961, he saw that," said longtime friend Fred Keller. "How do you spot the next new thing? Sometimes you just have the vision."

At his peak, he owned 21 individual restaurants, mostly in the St. Paul metro, with one in Hudson, Wis., and managed more than 10,000 employees. Chadima, who spent nearly 50 years in the industry, died June 11 at age 85.

McDonald's officials said Chadima played an instrumental role in bringing the corporation's Ronald McDonald House charity to the Twin Cities.

He started selling balloons in his stores during the late 1970s to raise money for the project. In 1979, the Ronald McDonald House of the Twin Cities — the first in the state and fifth nationally — opened near the University of Minnesota campus. Despite its small size and dilapidated front door, the renovated home was perfect for families who had previously been sleeping in cars and on folding chairs during their children's hospital stays.

"It was from such a pure place in their heart," Donna Moores, of Ronald McDonald House Charities, said of Chadima and the other founders. "It was never about show or impressing people. It was about doing something for others."

But Chadima had his biggest effect on the company by taking risks.

When an ad man on the McDonald's account came up with the idea of putting collection boxes for the charity in store drive-throughs, owners were skeptical. Chadima was the first to jump up and volunteer for the experiment the idea at his White Bear Lake restaurant, Keller said, and by day's end had counted about $51 in change. He then installed them at all of his stores, becoming a pioneer in drive-through donations. Today those containers globally earn $400 million a year for the Ronald McDonald House charity.

"Somebody has to raise their hand and say 'I'll do it.' It was just amazing that he did, because if he hadn't, I think [the idea] would have died," said Keller, a longtime spokesman for McDonald's.

"From this one little trickle of water, Jay helped create this raging torrent of money from all across the world."

Chadima later became famous with his employees for providing incentives to keep spirits up at work. He'd offer gifts for hamburger-making contests, or take his management team on fishing trips to Ontario, Canada.

Dick Starmann, senior vice president of communications worldwide for McDonald's Corp., described Chadima as a "gentle giant" who loved to give hugs with his big, burly arms.

Of the several thousand owner/operators Starmann has met, he believes Chadima was one of the finest.

"If you could design a McDonald's franchisee, he would be the model," Starmann said. "It's guys like Jay Chadima that helped make McDonald's what it is today."

Chadima is survived by his wife of 61 years, Gloria; daughters Jayne Lieske and Jodi Wolf; son David Chadima and five grandchildren.

Visitation will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Monday at Willwerscheid Funeral Home, 1167 Grand Av., St. Paul. Services will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Grace Church, 9301 Eden Prairie Road, Eden Prairie.