1979 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Don't take your freedoms and opportunities for granted."
Dave Thomas was born in 1932 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, but never knew his birth parents. He was adopted as an infant by a couple from Kalamazoo, Michigan, and his adoptive mother died when he was only five. He spent the next 10 years traveling with father, who moved from state to state looking for work as a mechanic and pipe-fitter.
Thomas worked as delivery boy and soda jerk. When he was 15 and working in a restaurant in Knoxville, his father wanted to leave town to try his luck in Fort Wayne. Thomas made the move, but told himself it would be the last one. When his father told him he was leaving Fort Wayne, Thomas chose not to go with him. He took a room at the YMCA and worked as a busboy at Fort Wayne's Hobby House restaurant until he was 18.
After a stint in the Army, Thomas returned to the Hobby House as a short-order cook. In less than 10 years, he worked himself up to vice president of the Hobby House chain in Fort Wayne. In 1962, Thomas became the manager of four failing Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in Columbus, Ohio. If he could revive the stores, pay off a $200,000 deficit, and turn a profit, he would get 45 percent ownership of the franchise for $65. Ignoring the advice of friends and even of Colonel Harland Sanders, the Kentucky Fried Chicken founder, Thomas accepted the challenge and took his family to Columbus.
Using sound management and marketing skills, Thomas made the restaurants prosperous and added four more locations. In 1968, at age 35, he sold the restaurants back to Kentucky Fried Chicken for $1.5 million. In 1969, he opened the first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers in Columbus. The company began selling franchises in 1973, and by 1979, had reached annual sales of $1 billion. In 1982, Thomas retired from his day-to-day operations of Wendy's. Soon thereafter, sales began to suffer. Thomas was recruited to become Wendy's spokesperson. He made 800 television commercials and played a major role in making Wendy's the third most popular burger restaurant.
In 1990, Thomas served as national spokesman for the White House Initiative on Adoption. He said, "Every child deserves a home and loving family. If I can get just one child a permanent home, my work in this area has been worth it."
A big believer in giving back to the community, Thomas said, "Each person has something important to give. Financial contributions are important, but it is just as important to give your time and energy. Giving back is the right thing to do, and can lead to a successful life."
Thomas told young people, "Find a mentor who can help you learn what is important in life. Live a life of integrity, and don't take the easy way out."* Deceased