Crusading for a "forever family" for every child in foster care
By Marlene Cimons
Few Americans know of the dark side of Dave Thomas' Depression-era childhood. Many know that he was adopted and that promoting adoption nationwide in recent years has become as much a part of his droll, folksy public persona as extolling the culinary joys of his hamburgers.
But not many are aware that his own adoption story was anything but warm and fuzzy. Indeed, it is a remarkable paradox--and surely psychologically complicated--that Dave Thomas, having evolved from such painful origins, not only became a millionaire businessman as chief executive of Wendy's, but in recent years has devoted himself to a tireless personal crusade to ensure that every child in foster care finds a forever family.
"I'm no expert," he says. "I'm just a hamburger cook. But I believe in adoption. I believe it is a positive thing. I think everyone deserves a permanent, loving home."
It was a long and difficult emotional journey for him to get to this place. He grew up lacking any real parental affection or involvement, or sense of family--except from his grandmother--and was shattered upon learning at 13 that he was adopted. This was an era when adoption was viewed as a shameful secret to be kept hidden. And his initial reaction was not surprising.
"I was ashamed," he says. "I didn't want anyone to find out. When your biological parents dump you and send you to live with someone else, it's nothing you ever want to brag about. I didn't want anyone to know that I was adopted."
He was born July 2, 1932, in Atlantic City, New Jersey to an unwed mother, and adopted when he was 6 weeks old by Rex and Auleva Thomas, a couple from Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Auleva Thomas died of rheumatic fever when he was 5, and, although he has no memories of her, he believes her death was pivotal in his childhood. His laborer father was to remarry three more times and constantly moved his changing family from state to state, searching for work.
He Never Felt He Belonged in His Family
Young Dave, pulled from one school to another, always the new kid on the block, making friends only to abruptly lose them again, felt rootless. Often, he struggled with a sense that he didn't belong in his family, although he never quite understood why.
He thought his father regarded him as worthless, and he always felt secondary to each new stepmother, especially during his father's second marriage, which also brought two stepsisters.
"I was always last after her two daughters," he says, recalling how the household was divided. "I always got the last bedroom."
Rex Thomas was not a demonstrative father. To be sure, he was honest and provided for his son but rarely showed him any affection. Still, Thomas defends him, saying: "He wasn't all that bad. He was a hard worker. He provided. He moved all the time and kept changing wives, but he was stable as far as bringing in a paycheck."
But when he got angry, he wouldn't hesitate to whack young Dave a few times with his belt, punishment the boy accepted. Yet perhaps it is because of this uneasy heritage, rather than in spite of it, that Dave Thomas now does what he does for kids.
"I think things would have been different if she [Auleva Thomas] had lived, or if my biological parents wouldn't have had me out of wedlock," he says. "It is a big deal, isn't it? But I always tried to take what was negative and make something positive out of it."
This is how he sees it: When he was growing up, economic times were hard. Even though his home life was far from ideal, his basic needs were met. He had food, clothing and shelter--not always the case in those days for many abandoned children.
He lied about his age and started working when he was 12, developing a powerful work ethic, one that would turn his life into a true Horatio Alger tale. Work became his identity and his refuge, filling the void left by the emptiness at home. Also, his bosses and their families became his surrogate families, providing him with the nurturing he never got from his father.
Being successful at work became a consuming force throughout his life
His childhood was tough, but it could have been worse. He didn't end up in an orphanage or in a boys' home. He never became a ward of the state, ill-trained and unprepared to enter the world. With all that was wrong, he still had a home--and a chance.
"I had the semblance of a permanent home, which was a lot better than being in an orphanage and a lot better than being in foster care," he says.
Today, married 45 years to the same woman, with five children and 15 grandchildren, he reveres the concept of family. His children are biological; despite his unrelenting support for adoption, the need to establish biological roots--even if they began with him--was overwhelming.
"I never had a family. I think family is really, really important. I don't think you have anything else but your family."
And that also is why he has become passionate about advocating for children who need loving homes--not those sought-after newborns who seldom have trouble finding parents. He fights for the others--older kids caught in the system who otherwise would be lost. Because it could have been him.
His Grandmother Thought He Was Special
The strongest influence in his early life was his grandmother, Minnie Sinclair. She was Auleva's mother. He would spend summers with her in Augusta, Michigan, which provided the happiest times--and most dependable thread--in his life. It was Grandma Minnie who taught him his earliest lessons about the value of work.
"Hard work is good for the soul," she told him. "And it keeps you from feeling sorry for yourself, because you don't have time."
Also, she warned, in lessons he would later apply to his fast-food empire: "Don't cut corners, or you'll lose quality. If you lose quality, you lose everything else."
One day when he was 13, she sat him down and told him the truth about himself: He had been adopted as an infant. Her daughter was not his biological mother, and his father was not his biological father.
It seemed to explain a lot. He was stunned, and distraught, although not with her. She helped him deal with it. He was feeling isolated and rejected, but "she always told me I was special," he says. "She built me up and told me, 'You're going to amount to something.'"
Grandma Minnie gave Thomas his only childhood experience of stability; with her, he could count on a routine. She was strict but loving, "which gave me a real sense of security," he recalls.
"She talked to me about God, and doing the right things, about being honest and how important your word is. She gave me real values. I really loved her."
Still, it took years before he shed his unwillingness to speak about his adoption to anyone.
But one day in the late 1980s--he can't remember exactly when--during a motivational speech to a group of Wendy's managers, he publicly acknowledged his history for the first time.
Trying to make the point that his success did not come from a privileged upbringing, he asked them: "How many of you know your mother and father?" Hands went up. "How many only know your mother?" Fewer hands went up. "How many in this room have never seen your biological mother?" Still fewer--but this time, his was among them.
"You're all a lot better off than I was....I have never seen my biological mother and father. I was adopted."
Afterward, he recalls, a young African American manager came up to him and said: "Why don't you go out and talk about being adopted? It would mean so much."
Raising Public Awareness of Adoption
That was the start of his advocacy, a crusade that has burgeoned since 1990 into nationwide efforts to make adoption easier and more affordable, and to raise public awareness about waiting children.
That year, then-President Bush asked him to head the administration's adoption initiative, "Adoption Works...for Everyone." Bush asked Thomas to talk to corporate America about creating adoption benefits for employees.
Thomas also wrote the governors of every state and spoke at the National Governors' Conference, urging adoption benefits for state workers.
"It's very inexpensive, and it's the right thing to do," he says, adding that Wendy's began such benefits in 1990.
In 1992, he founded the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, which awards grants to national and regional adoption organizations for programs that help raise adoption awareness. Thomas donates all his speaking fees, and the profits from his two books--Dave's Way and Well Done!--to the foundation and to other adoption organizations.
He has appeared at the White House for adoption-related events, in countless public service announcements and in print ads talking about the need for families for waiting children. The posters are everywhere, featuring his face surrounded by children, saying: "Adopt a special child. They grow up to be special people."
"He's lent a high profile to focus attention on adoption," says Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services' administration for children and families. "I know his own experience was a mixed one, but he still has been clear and strong about the message."
He helped start the Dave Thomas Center for Adoption Law in Ohio, part of the Capital University Law School, which develops adoption law curricula. And he has lobbied Congress for adoption measures, including 1996 legislation that established a $5,000 tax credit for adopting families, and the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act that created state incentives to reduce the waiting time of children in foster care.
There are an estimated 520,000 children in the public foster care system nationwide, an increase from 1988, when the number was 340,000. Many of these children-about 75 percent-ultimately will be able to return to their birthfamilies. But about 100,000 can't return and will need permanent adoptive homes.
With growing public awareness of children in the system, "for the first time, there has been a real increase in the number of adoptions from the foster care system," Kharfen says. "From 1996 to 1997, adoptions increased 10 percent from 28,000 to 31,000. This was the first significant increase since the foster care program was established in 1980."
"If we just get one kid a permanent loving home, it will be worth it," Thomas says. "I really believe that no child is unadoptable and that there is always somebody to adopt somebody."
He Vowed He'd Never Lose a Job Again
His first job, at age 12, was delivering groceries in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was fired after a misunderstanding with his boss about his vacation.
His second job was as a soda jerk at Walgreen, but he was fired again when the boss discovered he wasn't 16.
Rex Thomas was furious when he learned his son had lost his job. "You'll never keep a job," he screamed. "I'll be supporting you for the rest of your life."
It was a freeze frame in time for young Dave Thomas. At that moment, he vowed he would never in his life lose another job. He landed a job working 12-hour shifts at the counter in the family-owned Regas Restaurant in Knoxville. Owners Frank and George Regas, who were brothers, and their families treated him as one of their own, and became his mentors, his surrogate family.
Bill Regas, the boss's son, remains one of his closest friends. "He was like another brother," says Bill Regas, who is still involved in the family restaurant business. "He used to tell us, 'Someday I'll have a chain of restaurants,'" he says, laughing. "Today he's got over 5,000, and I'm still running two or three."
By the time Thomas was 15, the family had moved again, to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he got a job in another restaurant, the Hobby House. When his father announced yet another move, Thomas refused to go and took a room near the restaurant at the YMCA. Shortly thereafter, he made what he describes as the worst decision of his life: He quit school in the 10th grade to work full time.
"I was working 4 p.m. to midnight, I was tired, I couldn't study, I couldn't focus, and I really didn't like it," he says.
When he was 18, he joined the Army. After the service, he returned to the Hobby House, where he met his future wife, Lorraine, a waitress, whom he married in 1954. They had five children--Pam, Ken, Molly, Melinda Lou, and Lori.
Through the ensuing years, he worked his way up through a string of restaurant jobs. In 1956, Thomas met the king of fried chicken--Col. Harland Sanders. The chicken business grew, and, in 1962, Thomas took over--and turned around--four KFC carryouts in Columbus, Ohio, that were failing.
A Workaholic Dad
But Thomas wanted to sell hamburgers. On November 15, 1969, he opened his first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers Restaurant. Wendy was his daughter Melinda Lou's nickname; her siblings called her Wenda, and later, Wendy.
His children complained over the years that he was a workaholic, so one day he drove them into a rundown part of whatever town they were living in, telling them: "We could live like this if I only worked 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. It's your choice."
Eventually, they came to understand that his parenting style was a result of his troubled past. "I never really knew how to be a father, because I didn't really have a childhood," he says. "I lost my childhood. My kids are better parents than I was. I didn't have time to be that parent, because of work. I certainly wasn't a perfect father or the perfect grandfather."
"I just knew one thing, that when I got married to my wife and had Pam, I knew: I've got to feed this kid, clothe this kid and educate this kid," he says. "I had to go to work. I had a big responsibility, and I had no backup. I just had to do it."
Pam, who lives in Columbus with her husband and children, says, in a tone that is chiding, but gentle, even loving: "My dad knows nothing about parenting. He didn't even know how to get to our schools, and he never went to school events--I don't think he even knew that's what parents were supposed to do. My husband has taught me that that's what fathers do. My son made all-star lacrosse, and when I told my dad, he didn't even know what lacrosse was."
"She's right," Thomas says. "I had no idea. No one ever took me to ballgames."
But Pam recalls when her first marriage was in trouble, "he was right there for me," imploring her to "cut your losses and come home. It's time to come home."
Pam describes her mother as "the glue that held us together," a take-charge woman who essentially reared the children on her own while Thomas devoted himself to business.
"He was a grouch--he wanted peace and quiet, and she was the buffer between him and us. But today I understand that he did what he had to do. I adore my dad."
An atypical grandfather, he takes his grandchildren on trips around the country and to commercial shoots. "I know that my grandkids have other grandparents, and they might do a lot better job with my grandkids than I do," he says. "I can't put things together with them, I'm not mechanically inclined. But it's not like I don't take them places."
In recent years Thomas has tried to reconcile the missing pieces of his life. He regrets not ever meeting his biological parents; both died before he could search for them. Eventually he learned their identities and met his maternal grandparents and several paternal cousins.
"But it wasn't really enough," he says.
Rex Thomas eventually moved to a small Arkansas farm with his fourth wife. By then, Dave Thomas had resumed their relationship.
"He'd become a Mormon," he says. "He had a good family. They were good people."
And in 1993, 45 years after quitting school Thomas hired a tutor, studied, then passed the GED exam. Coconut Creek High School, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he and his wife live--made him a part of their senior graduating class. He was awarded his high school diploma.
Not surprisingly, they also voted him: "Most Likely to Succeed."
Marlene Cimons is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, This article is reprinted with permission.
On May 10, the United States Postal Service will issue its first stamp celebrating adoption, a Crayola-hued commemorative of two smiling stick figures hand in hand in front of a house framed by the message: "Adopting a Child. Shaping a Life. Building a Home. Creating a World." The United States Postal Service is printing 200 million stamps. Says Dave Thomas, "That's 200 million opportunities to deliver the message of adoption into homes across the country."
Several years ago, Thomas began soliciting various businesses and adoption organizations across the country to persuade the U.S.P.S. to add adoption to their roster of social awareness stamps (breast cancer, AIDS, organ donation) that are issued annually. Last year, the Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee, which approves all new issues, finally gave the go-ahead. "Adoption has been suggested for a long time," says Dave Failor, head of community relations for the United States Postal Service. "This seemed like the right moment."
The Dave Thomas Foundation had originally suggested that the stamp be illustrated with the work of an adopted child, but the U.S.P.S. found something even better: an adopted adult eager to celebrate his own heritage. The stamp's designer, Greg Berger, 30, born in Minnesota and raised by adoptive parents in South Africa, describes the stamp's creation as "a way of working out everything I've been thinking for the past 30 years." The childlike forms represent his desire to show adoption through "the eyes of a child looking on his parents, the people who will nurture him for the rest of his life."
Berger had his own adoption odyssey during the stamp's creation. On the same day he heard he had won the commission, he met his birthmother for the first time. "It brought a sense of closure to my life," says Berger. "The stamp is a culmination of my experience as an adoptive child: a home, a life, a world."
For an Adoption Stamp Tool Kit for events, Call the Dave Thomas Foundation at 800-443-7266.
(c)2000 Adoptive Families Magazine
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