Dave Thomas: 1932-2002

In Memory

Sonia Billadeau April 16, 2014
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On Tuesday, January 8, 2002, Dave Thomas died at age 69. Perhaps best known to the world at large as the founder of Wendy’s restaurants, Thomas was widely recognized as one of the most vocal and active advocates of adoption of special-needs children.

He always said there were three things he wanted people to know about himself:

  1. that he had been born out of wedlock,
  2. that he had been adopted, and
  3. that he had dropped out of high school.

As his business career peaked and he had time and money to spend, he made adoption and education the twin focuses of his life. He earned his GED and became a national spokesperson for adoption.

The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and Dave Thomas Center for Adoption Law (renamed The National Center for Adoption Law & Policy) at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio are two of the organizations he founded.

The Foundation provides information, advocacy, financial grants, and sponsorships to a wide variety of efforts to promote adoption from foster care. The Law Center provides a venue for legal discussion, reform, and education among law students, jurists, and members of the adoption community.

However, his involvement went far beyond giving his name and money to these organizations. He devoted untold hours lobbying for adoption benefits at the federal and state level, traveling around the country to address state legislatures and congressional committees. He convinced major businesses to add or improve adoption benefits as part of employee benefit packages, setting an example with his own companies and sponsoring awards to recognize others. He was a major force behind National Adoption Awareness Month, the annual “A Home for the Holidays” television show at Christmas, the Adoption Awareness Stamp issued in 1999 by the U.S. Postal Service, and an annual Adoption Christmas ornament, to name only a few.

Born in 1932 and adopted as an infant, Thomas spent most of his young life, from his early teens forward, on his own, learning everything he could about his consuming dream: to own a chain of restaurants. He dropped out of school at 15; at 18 joined the Army and was assigned to the occupation forces in Germany. While there, he fine-tuned his restaurateur and marketing skills, which served him well throughout the rest of his life. His first fast food experience after the service was with Kentucky Fried Chicken, but his true love was hamburgers. When KFC made him a wealthy man, he was able to pursue his dream and Wendy’s, named after his youngest daughter, was born.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

While his foundations will certainly continue to spearhead adoption advocacy and maintain a highly visible presence, the dynamism of Dave Thomas himself will be sorely missed.

In July 2003, in recognition of his exceptional contributions, Thomas was posthumously awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in ceremonies at the White House.

Additional Reading

  • Dave Thomas and Adoption: A Personal Recollection, by William L. Pierce
  • Excerpt from “Adoption Nation” in which Dave Thomas discusses his childhood as an adoptee and controversial adoption issues.

Books by and about Dave Thomas

  • “Franchising for Dummies”, by Dave Thomas
  • “Well Done! The Common Guy’s Guide to Everyday Success”, by Dave Thomas
  • “Dave Thomas (Overcoming Adversity)”, by Nancy Peacock
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Sonia Billadeau


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