School was out for the year and Quitmon Hartzol went to his local McDonald's in South suburban Sauk Village to apply for his first job at the age of 15, just looking to earn "some money for the summer," he says.
Hartzol rose through the ranks: from "fry guy" and manning the registers, to management.
Three decades after that first summer job, Hartzol now oversees five McDonald's locations in the Northwest suburbs, including three stores in Schaumburg, one in Palatine and one in Rolling Meadows.
He's also now a college graduate with an undergraduate degree in organizational leadership, thanks to a company tuition assistance program.
Hartzol received his degree during a noontime event Wednesday at the McDonald's on Kirchoff Road in Rolling Meadows, as part of a ceremony that also honored 14 employees for completing an eight-week English language skills course sponsored by the company.
"Originally I wanted to be a chef," said Hartzol, who previously attained a culinary degree, "but I realized I wanted to work with people."
During long commutes from his home in Blue Island to the Northwest suburbs over the past two years, Hartzol listened to college course materials via audiobook, and spent other free time completing coursework online through Southern New Hampshire University.
He's one of about 26,000 McDonald's employees who have received college tuition assistance through the corporation's Archways to Opportunity program, which also runs an online high school diploma program and the English skills course.
Derrick and Cheryl Taylor, owner/operators of 11 local McDonald's restaurants including the Rolling Meadows location, presented certificates and medals to their employees during a ceremony at the PlayPlace indoor playground -- complete with "Pomp and Circumstance" music befitting a graduation.
The Taylors were joined by Mayor Joe Gallo, who told employees of his father's coming to America story. His dad's first job was at a McDonald's, where he was assigned to make fries, and had to cut the potatoes by hand.
"He knows all too well about what the struggles are in day-to-day work," Gallo said. "But anytime you take opportunities to make the lives that you lead better, it makes the community better."