The World of Grandpa Don

Dave Thomas: The Face of Adoption
National Review; January 13, 2002

By Kathryn Jean Lopez

[Pro-Life Infonet Note: 
Kathryn Jean Lopez is the executive editor of National Review Online.]

Why are your hamburgers square?" Dave Thomas was sometimes asked. "Because we don't cut corners," he would reply. "Aren't you the No. 2 fast-food chain?" His answer: "Yes, but first in quality." 

Sure it's corny, but everybody else is saying it, and, by all accounts, it happens to be true: Dave Thomas was a guy with a "biggie" size heart. Thomas -- although we all know him less formally as Dave -- died on January 7 at age 69 of liver cancer. He will be remembered by most Americans as the founder of Wendy's and its easily recognized spokesman -- that guy from the commercials. But to many others -- indeed, for most of his life, to himself -- he was much more than a successful burger king. 

Thomas was born out of wedlock in 1932 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and a couple from Michigan adopted him when he was six months old. His adoptive mother, however, died from rheumatic fever only five years later. His father, a construction worker who would bring on three successive stepmothers for his son, and his grandmother became his sources of stability.

Thomas got his first job at 12, and would start working in the food sector at 15, as a busboy. Later he served in the military as a short-order cook, and would eventually work fulltime in a restaurant in Indiana. That's where he met up with Harland Sanders, "Col. Sanders" of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. In 1962, having been mentored by the Colonel, Thomas purchased a string of failing KFC restaurants. By age 35, six years later, the man was a millionaire.

Then came the birth of his empire. Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers, named after his then eight-year-old daughter (Melinda Lou, who was nicknamed Wendy), opened its first store in Columbus, Ohio, in 1969. 

Thomas actually holds a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for his staying power as company head and personality. But it took until 1989, the year he debuted in a Wendy's commercial, for him to become the nationally known face of the chain. During his last years, Thomas filmed 800 commercials -- reportedly, he had only intended to do one.

Thomas never graduated from high school; he earned a high-school equivalency certificate in 1993. (His classmates voted him "most likely to succeed.") It's not something he was proud of. As a successful businessman he would tell kids, "We have 4,000 restaurants today, but if I had gotten my high-school diploma, we might have 8,000." (When he died, there were 6,000 Wendy's restaurants worldwide, in more than 30 countries.)

Thomas was cut from similar cloth as another Christian entrepreneur who recently died, Mary Kay Ash, founder of the Mary Kay cosmetics empire. In fact, at a 1996 speech to Hillsdale College -- Thomas served on their board from May 1999 to May 2000 -- Thomas referred to Mary Kay when advising students on the keys to success. He said, "Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, once told me something I'll never forget. She said the one suggestion she got in life that helped her most was to 'pretend that every single person you meet has a sign around his or her neck that says, "Make me feel important."'

He was talking about "caring." Caring in business, and in life. Basic enough, right? Here's what he then said: Why aren't we just nice to people? One year, shortly before Christmas, I went to a Wendy's restaurant in Albuquerque to film a television program about adoption with two youngsters. The little girl, who was about seven, had a fresh scar where her father had walloped her with a beer bottle. That scar wasn't going to go away. As we ate lunch along with a friend of mine, the girl and her older brother, who was about nine, finally started to look us in the eyes, and that was none too easy for them. We talked about how important it is to stick together when you don't have other family. And then the boy said, "I don't want to be adopted with her. Just look at her ugly scar!"

It may seem cruel, but he was right. The boy knew his sister's appearance would turn off many possible adoptive parents. And before you condemn him, think back for a minute: Were you any less selfish when you were nine? I doubt that I was. My friend -- who is smart in a low-key way and who made it big-time by building a big business over the years -- reached into his wallet and pulled out two crisp one hundred dollar bills. "You kids," he said in a real quiet voice, "don't have any money to buy Christmas presents. It's plain to see that. So I want you to buy some Christmas presents, but there's a catch. You can't buy anything for yourself. Think hard about what your brother or sister might like or need and buy that instead. Finally, you have to write me a letter about what you got each other."

That five-minute course in caring outdid the best universities anywhere. The brother and sister made up. In January, my friend received the letter reporting what they bought each other, and he sent a copy to me. Then we learned  that they had been adopted by a family. As I hear it, they're quite a team, and their new parents are proud to have them -- because of the way they care for each other and for other reasons, too.

That's the stuff Dave Thomas worried about once he "made it." Putting families together. The first President Bush named him as a national spokesman on adoption in 1990. In 1992 Thomas created the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, to "educate prospective parents about the adoption process and to streamline the adoption process by making it easier and more affordable." For Thomas, "leave no child behind" was a life's work. He always took the opportunity to tell people that every child deserves a home, particularly focusing on the children who are often not adopted -- the older ones, the children with siblings. (The average age of a child waiting for parents is 8.6 years old.) Overall, there are over 100,000 American kids waiting to be adopted. (He dabbled in politics beyond adoption too; state Republican-party officials even asked him to run for governor of Ohio, but Thomas declined.)

All proceeds of the three books he wrote -- Dave's Way: A New Approach to Old-Fashioned Success in 1991, Well Done: Dave's Secret Recipe for Everyday Success in 1994, and Franchising for Dummies in 2000 -- were sent directly to the foundation. He donated the seed money for a school of adoption law at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, and was behind an adoption tax-credit that passed Congress in 1996. Testifying to a congressional committee on adoption, he said, "I know firsthand how important it is for every child to have a home and a loving family. Without a family, I would not be where I am today."

His own family consists of his wife of 47 years, Lorraine, five children, and 16 grandchildren. Wendy Thomas, on the occasion of the unveiling of an adoption-advocacy stamp in 2000, told reporters of her father, "He's gotten corporate America to give adoption benefits just like maternity benefits. That wasn't happening 10 years ago. He's making it easy, and that's what it should be." 

Dave Thomas is fondly remembered. Everyone from J. C. Watts, who worked with Thomas on adoption issues, to Hillary Clinton issued press releases marking his passing. People who knew him refer to him as "ordinary," "no-frills." He's the rags-to-riches CEO who considered himself, by all accounts, "simply a hamburger cook." And he will continue to be held in strong regard by one particular group of Americans. Patrick Reilly, director of a Catholic higher-education nonprofit outside Washington, D.C., never met Thomas, but he and his twin brother were both adopted as young children. "Dave Thomas was a hero to adoptees," Reilly says, "one of the few public figures who celebrated adoption instead of sensationalizing the rare case of abusive parents. I thank God everyday for the gift of both my parents and my adoptive parents. Dave Thomas understood their sacrifice of love, the essence of adoption."


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Adoption Page

" ... as often as you have done it for one of my least brothers, 
you did it for me."

Matthew 25:40

This scripture passage has a special meaning for me and the story of my being adopted. I believe that adoption is a profound fulfillment of Matthew 25:31-40.
I started this page when I found two new cyber-friends who have views  common to mine on this subject. I found their stories to be exceptional. The page is expanding.

Grandpa Don

Graphic used with permission.
Jean Keaton

Dave Thomas: The Face of Adoption

The World of Grandpa Don 

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