By MARY ELYSEE VELASCO
Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas may have been the father of a successful fast food chain that stretches around the globe, but more importantly he was just Wendy’s dad.
With her iconic red hair pulled back into bouncy pigtails, speckled freckles and a gentle smile, Wendy became the famous, familiar face of her father’s restaurant at 8 years old.
Out of five siblings, Wendy was the fourth child of Dave and Lorraine Thomas. Born in Fort Wayne, Ind. as Melinda Lou Thomas, the now married 51-year-old Texan still prefers to be called Wendy, a nickname resulting from her difficulty pronouncing “Melinda” as a child.
Dave Thomas, who worked with Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Sanders for many years, learned that in order to be memorable, people needed to relate his restaurant with a personality. Wendy, with her all-American appearance and simple name, became his top choice.
Did life change for little Wendy after her big debut?
“Not really. I still took out the trash,” she said. “But even today it’s an honor. Not many people have almost 7,000 restaurants named after them.”
Growing up, she remembers family trips to Fort Lauderdale, discussing business sales and customer satisfaction at the dinner table, meeting new people and visiting new places. She played card games with her father and always asked him questions.
“Every day with my dad was part of my education,” she said. “I wouldn’t change it for the world. It was fun. I was inquisitive—and probably annoying.”
Wendy and her siblings had fun mocking their father while they watched his commercials. In Dave’s lifetime, he appeared in more than 800 commercials and was often recognized wherever he went. Although his popularity was demanding, Wendy’s dad took it in stride and treated each person as a potential customer.
“People were in awe of him. Especially the women,” Wendy teased.
In spite of her jokes, Wendy truly trusted her father’s word. After Dave met 1979-1984 University of Florida Football Coach Charley Pell, he encouraged her to become a Gator. After one visit, Wendy decided to make Gainesville her college town.
She studied consumer behaviorism as an independent major and recalled days of Gator Growl. In her undergraduate years, she reveled in free concerts, football and baseball. She was at UF when actor Robin Williams, comedian Bill Cosby and musician Tom Petty made headlines on campus.
“I still keep in touch with great professors,” she said. “I love the people, and the school is beautiful. I wish I could go back in time and bike everywhere I needed to go like I used to.”
Wendy has even passed her love for Gainesville down to her youngest daughter.
“I want my youngest daughter to go to UF. Actually, put that in the magazine: Please let my daughter come to UF. Let me know if you know someone,” she said as she exposed her playful nature. “I miss it and need to go back. I haven’t been there in years.”
Above all, Wendy misses the presence of her father who passed away in 2002. Dave
Thomas succumbed to a long battle with liver cancer at the age of 69.
She described her father as a man of few, but very wise, words. When she had a problem, he would sit silently and contemplate before he would answer her.
“I loved being around him. I wish I could call him up and ask him, ‘Hey, what do you think?’” Wendy said. “He’s always right on. He’s just so real. A normal guy who is very genuine and very inspiring to be around.”
And it was his ability to inspire that motivates his daughter today. Wendy still hears stories of how her father helped others triumph. She mentioned that a booming businessman recently thanked Dave Thomas for encouraging him to chase his dreams.
As for her, Wendy thanks her father for teaching her how to hold honesty and integrity up high. Because of her dad, Wendy continues to believe she can do whatever she wants to do.
“Without integrity, we are nothing. My dad had a special talent. Not many men are like that, or women for that matter,” she said.
She and her siblings co-own 33 Wendy’s restaurants in Ohio and revive their father’s vision every day. As a mother of three children in college and one sophomore in high school, Wendy is mirroring her father’s busy family life.
And now life has come full circle. Wendy’s kids make fun of her commercials the same way Wendy and her siblings poked fun at their dad. She said that her kids’ favorite word to describe her is “awkward” with a stretching lilt at the end.
But Wendy doesn’t mind. It brings her closer to the man who raised her.
“My dad is with me every day,” she said. “I think about him all the time so I’m always smiling.”