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No. 3171:
Dave Thomas

by Andy Boyd

Today, we don't cut corners. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I've long had a soft spot for Dave Thomas, founder of the Wendy's hamburger chain. Like Thomas, my first job was in the short order food service business, working as a dishwasher for my father from the age of nine. Also like Thomas, I was adopted, and my wife and I are adoptive parents. But more than anything, I've been drawn to the man for his achievements.

Hobart Dishwasher
Hobart Dishwasher   Photo Credit: Wikimedia

Thomas's work ethic was legendary. By age twelve he'd worked as a paperboy, golf caddy, grocery deliverer and pinsetter at a bowling alley. When he took a job at a soda fountain, he was soon fired when the manager realized he was too young to work. Influenced by his grandmother and the people he would work for, Thomas had a "mop-bucket" attitude. He was never afraid to pitch in and do what was needed, and he led by example. Growing up, his grandmother repeatedly reminded him not to cut corners, and this became symbolized in the iconic shape of a Wendy's burger patty - square.

Thomas dropped out of school in tenth grade to work full time in a fast food restaurant. Learning by doing, much of his education came from an extended stint with KFC. He opened his first Wendy's in 1969 at age thirty-seven, taking the name from his eight-year-old daughter and seeking to capture a family-oriented theme. A mere thirteen years later, he stepped back from his leadership role in the now thriving business.

First Wendy's
First Wendy's   Photo Credit: Flickr

Over the next four years the company began to stumble. When a new president was hired to turn things around, he encouraged Thomas to take a more active role in the business. Thomas took to the road, visiting franchisees to talk business. And he began the activity for which he's most well-known - as the star of Wendy's television ads, more than eight hundred of them. Adorned in a white dress shirt and tie - often with a Wendy's apron - with thinning gray hair and prominent glasses, Thomas was part kindly old grandfather, part nerd. His gentle, unflappable style made up for his inability to act, and the camera's ability to capture this odd mix endeared him to television viewers.

Wendy's Commercial featuring the late Dave Thomas
Wendy's Commercial featuring the late Dave Thomas   Video Credit: YouTube

But Thomas was more than a pretty face. In 1992, he founded the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. The foundation is special in its focus on finding permanent homes for the hundred-and-fifty thousand U.S. children in foster care. These oft-forgotten children are harder to find homes for than infants.

Foster Care Family
Foster Care Family   Photo Credit: Flickr

Thomas regretted the fact that he'd dropped out of high school in large part because he believed it set a bad example. So at age sixty-one he studied for and earned his general equivalency diploma. When the students at Coconut Creek High School in Fort Lauderdale got word, they invited Thomas and his wife to be king and queen of the school prom and the school granted him a degree. He was also voted the student most likely to succeed, a nice gesture for a man who not only succeeded in business, but in life.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Among his many awards, Dave Thomas posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003.

Douglas Martin. "Dave Thomas, 69, Wendy's Founder, Dies." The New York Times, January 9, 2002.