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In Memoriam: Dave Thomas

Most people will probably remember Dave Thomas, who died recently, only as a clever entrepreneur. But he was so much more. It’s no exaggeration to call him a cultural revolutionary.

I’m not talking about his restaurant business. Rather, it was in his other, less-public life – as an adoption advocate and reformer – that Thomas had a genuinely profound impact on our country, one that will outlive fast-food empires far bigger than his own.

The list of Thomas’ contributions is long, and more radical than it may seem. It includes his championing of legislation such as the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, which forever altered the way adoptees and their families are treated by our nation’s laws; to his lead-by-example promotion of adoption benefits for American employees, so that those who adopt can finally be treated on par with those who form their families biologically; to his seemingly bottomless passion: finding permanent families for boys and girls who need them, which he did by starting a foundation, by donating his time and money to others, by financing television specials on children’s behalf, and on and on.

The bottom line is that Dave Thomas helped to reshape adoption’s role in our culture. Thomas did it by helping to accelerate the transformation of adoption from an institution shrouded in secrecy and shame, into one that is an open, proud and vital part of the American mainstream.

The change was occurring anyway, to be sure, for diverse reasons ranging from the end of the taboo against single motherhood to the opening of China and the former Soviet Union for adoption. But Thomas, who showed how significant a difference one individual can make, should also get his due.

Thomas didn’t even know he was adopted until he was 13 and he was angry at having been deceived, as most adoptees are if the truth is withheld. He felt alienated because, in his words, “everyone I loved had lied to me all my life.” So he found his birthmother, grew closer to his adoptive family as he learned more about his relinquishment, and set about making adoption into a more honest and accessible institution for children in need of homes.

Lots of people become wealthy. Few of them decide to use their good fortune to change the world for the better. Even fewer succeed to the extent that Dave Thomas did.

Adam Pertman, a journalist and lecturer on family issues, is the author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America.

©Copyright 2002 Adoptive Families magazine. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited. Subscribe to Adoptive Families online at or via toll-free phone 800-372-3300.

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