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News > Companies
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Wendy's founder dead at 69
graphic January 8, 2002: 12:29 p.m. ET

Dave Thomas, creator of No. 3 hamburger chain, familiar face in ads.
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    COLUMBUS, Ohio (CNN) - Wendy's restaurant founder Dave Thomas, the well-known face behind the fast-food chain, died early Tuesday after a long battle with liver cancer, the company said. He was 69.

    Thomas died at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in the presence of a private physician.  He had a carcinoid tumor in his liver for more than 10 years, the company said in a news release.

    "Dave was our patriarch, a great, big lovable man," said Jack Schuessler, chairman and CEO of Wendy's International Inc.

    Wearing a Wendy's apron, Thomas was one of the nation's most recognized television spokesmen. He has appeared in almost every advertisement for the No. 3 burger chain in the United States since 1989.

    "Although Dave was widely popular, he was never very comfortable as a celebrity," Schuessler said.  "He kept reminding us he was simply a hamburger cook."

    When he was 12 years old, Thomas started working at a barbecue restaurant in Knoxville, Tenn., according to the company's Web site.  Thomas eventually moved into a management position with Kentucky Fried Chicken, where he met one of the greatest influences in his life -- Colonel Harland Sanders, KFC founder. 

    In 1969, he opened his first Wendy's restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, naming it after his daughter. Today, Ohio-based Wendy's operates about 6,000 restaurants in the United States and Canada with systemwide sales of more than $7 billion.

    As a successful businessman, Thomas founded numerous charities, including the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, a cause he was particularly passionate about.

    Born on July 2, 1932, Thomas was adopted by a Michigan family when he was six weeks old, according to his biography on the company's Web site.

    "When I found out I was (adopted), I didn't want to talk about it, and as I talked to people as I grew older ... I got really a lot of encouragement," Thomas said in a 1999 interview on CNN.  "They said, 'why don't you talk about it?'  And I thought, well, I'll do it if, you know, I could just help one boy or one girl get a home."

    The founder and senior chairman of Wendy's International became a household name when he began pitching his burgers and fries in TV commercials in 1989. The smiling Thomas touted the virtues of fast-food in humorous ads, sometimes featuring 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 is survived by his wife of 47 years, Lorraine, five children and 16 grandchildren. His foundation helps raise awareness for the 134,000 foster children available for adoption, and helps make adoption more affordable.

    Wendy's (WEN: Research, Estimates) stock rose 60 cents to $30.79 Tuesday. graphic

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