The Burger King and the Prima Donna
The McLamore siblings left their mark on the world in vastly different ways.
By Tara Jackson P’21
When NMH students play their hearts out on McLamore Field, they probably don’t know that the field is named for the man who invented The Whopper.
James W. McLamore ’41 played his heart out on the same hill, and 11 years after leaving Mount Hermon, he co-founded Burger King, which would become one of the largest restaurant chains in the world. McLamore helped Burger King expand to 274 restaurants before selling the company to Pillsbury in the 1960s for $18 million. Today, Burger King has approximately 18,000 restaurants worldwide and is worth more than $15 billion.
But McLamore started small. In his autobiography, The Burger King, published posthumously in 1998 and republished with new material in April 2020, he recounted how he came to Mount Hermon from his family’s farm in Central Valley, New York, where they moved after losing nearly everything in the 1929 stock market crash. His mother had died when he was a toddler; his grandmother, who raised him, died when he was 11. The family was nearly penniless when McLamore arrived at Mount Hermon. He suffered from severe homesickness during his first year, and eventually eased his own depression by throwing himself into school life.
By senior year, McLamore was a leader on campus, and was known as “Big Jim.” He participated in virtually every student club and organization, and was a “hard charging, glue-fingered pass receiver” on the varsity football team, according to a 1942 article in The Hermonite.
As the senior class president, he delivered the annual student speech about D.L. Moody’s famed “one-tined fork” story, and explained that “the hardships and disadvantages of life are not overwhelming and unconquerable if one is willing to exercise all his faculties” — including, as Moody had suggested, “the readiness at any time to eat soup with a one-tined fork.”
McLamore exercised all his faculties after NMH by hitchhiking to Cornell University and enrolling in the School of Hotel Administration. By the time he turned 23, he’d graduated college, done a stint in the U.S. Navy, married and started a family, and managed a YMCA cafeteria in Wilmington, Delaware. Deciding it was time to venture out on his own, he opened his first restaurant, the Colonial Inn, and then launched the Burger King Corporation in 1954 with a partner, David Edgerton.
Their quick-service restaurant operation floundered initially, and the partners were about to go broke when they received an infusion of capital from a trucking magnate acquaintance. It wasn’t until they introduced the Whopper in 1957 that the brand took off. By the early 1970s, they’d helped open more than 800 Burger King restaurants.
Although he’s best known as the co-founder of “The Home of the Whopper,” McLamore also left his mark on his other home, the city of Miami. He chaired the board of trustees of the University of Miami and led the Community Television Foundation that operated WPBT-Channel 2, a public television station in Miami. He was one of five investors who helped shore up the Miami Dolphins football team in the 1970s, and he led the board of the Fairchild Tropical Garden as it was rebuilt after Hurricane Andrew.
In his book, McLamore wrote that philanthropy and community building — “becoming involved with activities that help to enrich the lives of others” — were always part of his plan. He died in 1996 at the age of 70.
The Prima Donna
Two years before Jim McLamore ’43 enrolled at Mount Hermon, his older sister, Claire ’41, applied to the Northfield Seminary. “I would love to be a singer more than anything else,” she wrote in her application letter in 1937. Her life at Northfield revolved around music, and after graduation she studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Within a decade, she would become a mainstay soprano in the opera houses of Europe.
In his book The Last Prima Donnas, Italian critic Lanfranco Rasponi wrote, “From the mid-fifties to the mid-seventies, no other American singer enjoyed the kind of prestige in Central Europe that surrounded Claire Watson.”
But before the prestige came marriage and children, which put college and a singing career on hold for several years. It wasn’t until 1948 that Watson (her married name) began studying music again, and got her big break: an invitation to open the season at the opera house in Graz, Austria, as Desdemona in Otello. In 1958, she became a member of the Bavarian State Opera, then moved to Munich and divorced her husband.
Watson gave a concert at the Northfield Auditorium in January 1969, between a concert tour of South America and a performance as soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Her brother Jim was an NMH trustee at the time, but didn’t get to see the performance. Friends wrote to him that “Claire’s beautiful voice completely filled the barn-y auditorium and the students loved it all.” Watson died in 1986. She was 59.
Photos courtesy of McLamore Family Foundation