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He Had the Beef All Along

January 11, 2002

Yes, his hamburgers are fresh and square like his public persona. Yes, the orphaned onetime busboy was a modern Horatio Alger who turned a likable personality and down-home Ohio burger place into the third-ranking international chain. Yes, he was the cheery, chubby, ubiquitous uncle in short sleeves who starred in his own long-running ads. But, no, he won't be back. Dave Thomas, who founded Wendy's Old-Fashioned Hamburgers and gave it his daughter's nickname, died of liver cancer the other day at 69.

Some surveys showed that 90% of Americans recognized Thomas' plain, slightly tilted, bespectacled, bemused visage. Less recognized is that he spent millions of dollars and the last years of his life quietly facilitating the adoptions of countless American orphans into the kind of loving, stable home that he never knew as a child.

Born to unwed parents, Thomas was adopted at six weeks. At 5, his mother died and he traipsed after an itinerant father who married many times. Thomas' security came from summertimes with a grandmother, who taught him hard work and never to cut corners (hence, the square burgers).

In 1992, he founded the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. He financed it with book and speech earnings and again traipsed all over the country, this time tirelessly testifying before legislatures, governors, luncheons and even lone television cameras to raise adoption awareness, to support legal reforms and boost private incentives to encourage adoptions.

In Montana, for instance, he underwrote the compilation of a state government book containing stories and photographs of scores of developmentally disabled orphans. Then he ordered copies of the "Treasure Book" installed at the front counter of every Wendy's in the state. "Adopt a special child," he said. "They grow up to be special people." Within months, dozens of youngsters had found new families.

A few years ago, arriving at an ad shoot soon after quadruple bypass surgery, Thomas handed out T-shirts that said, "Dave's Back" on the back and "Dave's Front" on the front. Today, alas, Dave's Gone. But not the thousands of loving family homes he helped create across this country for orphaned children. Now, that was a Biggie.

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