After meeting on a Florida golf course, actor Lee Majors and Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas became pals. “We’d go in places,” recalls the former Six Million Dollar Man, “and they’d always recognize Dave first.”
Since 1989, Thomas, who died Tuesday of liver cancer at age 69 in his Fort Lauderdale home, was one of the most recognizable faces on TV. Folksy and self-effacing, he appeared in more than 800 commercials for the hamburger chain named for his daughter, now 40. “As long as it works,” he said in 1991, “I’ll continue to do those commercials.”
Despite his success Thomas remained haunted by his hardscrabble childhood. “He still won’t let anyone see his feet, which are all screwed up because he never had proper-fitting shoes,” Wendy told PEOPLE in 1993. Born to a single mother, he was adopted as a baby by Rex and Auleva Thomas of Kalamazoo, Mich. After Auleva died when he was 5, Thomas spent years on the road as Rex traveled around seeking construction work. “He fed me,” Thomas said, “and if I got out of line, he’d whip me.”
Moving out on his own at 15, Thomas worked, first as a busboy, in a string of restaurants. He had loftier goals, though. “I thought if I owned a restaurant,” he said, “I could eat for free.” A 1956 meeting with Col. Harland Sanders eventually led Thomas to a career as a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisee that made him a millionaire at 35.
In 1969, after breaking with Sanders, Thomas launched the first Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers, in Columbus, Ohio, which set itself apart by serving made-to-order burgers. With 6,000 restaurants worldwide, the chain now does an annual $6 billion in sales.
Although traumatized by his own experience with adoption, Thomas, married since 1954 to Lorraine, 66, and with four grown kids besides Wendy, felt it could offer a future for other children. He started the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in 1992. “People ask me, ‘What about gay adoptions? Interracial? Single parents?’ ” he said. “I say, ‘Hey, fine, as long as it works for the child.’ ”
In 1993, Thomas, who had quit school at 15, donned graduation robes and accepted his GED at Coconut Creek (Fla.) High School. He even took Lorraine to the prom. The kids voted him Most Likely to Succeed.
“The Dave you saw on TV,” says friend Pat Williams, senior vice president of the Orlando Magic, “was the real Dave. He wasn’t a great entertainer or a great orator. He was just Joe Everybody.”