By MARK WILLIAMS, Associated Press Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Dave Thomas, the portly pitchman whose homespun ads built Wendy's Old-Fashioned Hamburgers into one of the world's most successful fast-food franchises, died early Tuesday at his home in Florida from liver cancer, the company said.
He was 69.
Thomas had slow-growing cancer of the liver for more than a decade and had undergone dialysis since early 2001, the company said. Thomas had quadruple heart bypass surgery in December 1996.
"He was the heart and soul of our company. He had a passion for great tasting hamburgers, and devoted his life to serving customers great food and helping those less fortunate in his community," said Jack Schuessler, chairman and chief executive of Wendy's, which is based in the suburb of Dublin.
Thomas lived in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The founder and senior chairman of Wendy's International became a household face when he began pitching his burgers and fries in television commercials in 1989. The smiling Thomas, always wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and red tie, touted the virtues of fast-food in humorous ads, often featuring big-name stars such as bluesman B.B. King and soap opera queen Susan Lucci.
"As long as it works, I'll continue to do the commercials," Thomas said in a 1991 interview. "When it's not working any longer, then I'm history."
Thomas appeared in more than 800 commercials. In recent advertisements, he had lost weight.
"Although Dave was wildly popular, he was never very comfortable as a celebrity. He kept reminding us he was simply a hamburger cook," Schuessler said.
Burgers were not Thomas' first love. Thomas was born in Atlantic City, N.J., and was adopted as an infant by a Michigan couple. He became a national advocate for adoption, creating the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a nonprofit organization focused on raising public awareness. The profits from his books, "Dave's Way" and "Well Done!" go to the foundation.
He once testified before a congressional committee for a bill that would give a $5,000 tax credit to those who adopt children.
"I know firsthand how important it is for every child to have a home and loving family," he testified. "Without a family, I would not be where I am today."
Thomas, born July 2, 1932, was 12 when he got his first restaurant job -- as a counterman in Knoxville, Tenn.
While working at a barbecue restaurant in Fort Wayne, Ind., he met KFC founder Col. Harland Sanders, who became a major influence in his life.
Thomas came to Columbus in 1962 to take over four failing KFC restaurants for his boss, who promised Thomas a 45 percent stake in them if he turned them around. Thomas sold the restaurants back to KFC for $1.5 million in 1968, making Thomas a millionaire at 35.
He opened his first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers in Columbus on Nov. 15, 1969. He named the restaurant after his 8-year-old daughter Melinda Lou, nicknamed Wendy by her siblings.
The chain grew to 4,800 restaurants in the United States and 34 countries by 1996. That year, Wendy's acquired the 1,200-store, Canadian-based Tim Hortons chain of coffee and fresh-baked goods.
But it was the TV commercials that made Thomas famous. Industry analysts and company officials said the ads helped the company rebound from a difficult period in the mid-1980s when earnings sank.
"He's given Wendy's a corporate identity ... a down-homey type image. The lack of sophistication is a real benefit for the company," one financial analyst said in 1991.
Thomas had tried to retire in 1982, but came back in 1989 to do commercials.
"They took the focus off the consumer," he said of the executives who took over the company.
In 1996, Thomas filmed his 500th commercial. The company staged a lookalike contest that attracted 1,600 entrants vying for the grand prize: a chance to appear in a commercial with Thomas.
In 1999, Thomas temporarily took charge of the company after the second death of its chief executive and president in less than four years. John Schuessler, formerly head of Wendy's U.S. operations, was appointed to those positions in early 2000.
Thomas also was a forgiving businessman.
The city of Philadelphia in 1994 wanted to fine Wendy's $98,400, claiming the restaurant was selling quarter-pounders that were short by up to a quarter of an ounce. The city later announced it made an error and withdrew the fine.
"I understand what happened," said Thomas, who visited the city shortly afterward. "Things happen. Mistakes happen. As far as we're concerned, we just want to go to the future. A bright future."
Thomas, who told the story of his life in "Dave's Way," told 2,500 Columbus public school seniors in 1993 -- the year he earned a high school equivalency certificate -- that his biggest mistake was not finishing high school.
"We have 4,000 restaurants today, but if I had gotten my high school diploma, we might have 8,000," he said.
Wendy's now has 6,000 restaurants worldwide and more than 2,000 Tim Hortons. The two chains have combined sales of more than $8 billion.
Thomas is survived by his wife of 47 years, Lorraine, five children and 16 grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.