Why Dave Thomas quietly went back to school after his Wendy's success

When you hear "Dave Thomas," it's hard not to think Wendy's.

The soft-spoken, white-haired businessman — who died in 2002 at the age of 69 — famously turned an Ohio hamburger joint into one of America's most successful fast food chains.

This, I'm guessing, you probably already knew.


GIF via Wendy's/YouTube.

What you may not have known is that Thomas wasn't just about burgers and fries — he was a proud advocate of getting an education, too. I wasn't aware of this until I spotted a thread posted to Reddit on Sept. 3, 2015, that was getting quite a lot of attention.

Despite having never graduated, Thomas remained a staunch proponent of staying in school.

He dropped out when he was just 15 years old. And the decision haunted him.

"Dave was worried that his business success might discourage young people from finishing school," Frank Vamos, director of brand communications for Wendy's, told Upworthy. "One of Dave's biggest regrets was dropping out, saying it was one of the worst mistakes he'd made in his life."

Thomas encouraged kids to make education a priority. So when a high schooler questioned how Thomas could do that while he had dropped out, it inspired him to go back and hit the books. He was 61 years old.

In 1993, Thomas obtained his GED from Coconut Creek High School outside Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Yes, this was long after Wendy's had already made him an uber-successful business leader, so he certainly didn't need the resume booster.

Photo courtesy of The Wendy's Company.

Probably the most adorable part about this story ... not only was Thomas named "Most Likely to Succeed" by Coconut Creek's senior class (which he said "adopted" him as their own), they also voted him and his wife, Lorraine, the school's prom king and queen that year.

“After 45 years, I went back to school, studied for and got my GED," Thomas said of his accomplishment. "It wasn't easy, but it was worth it, and it's something I'm very proud of."

That pride inspired him to leave a lasting legacy that values education. After obtaining his GED, Thomas created the Wendy's High School Heisman program in 1994 to encourage students to get the most out of their high school experience. The program gives away thousands of scholarships to high school seniors every year.

Thomas' decision to go back to school was a good one, being a role model and all, because high school dropouts make way less money than graduates.

Don't take my word for it — let the numbers do the talking.

Photo via iStock.

It's also good to note that, despite valid arguments questioning the value of a college degree amid skyrocketing tuition costs these days, those who complete college still earn significantly more on average than those who don't. (Although it is fair to say college may not be for everyone, and that's OK.)

While I'm on the subject of making money, this is one area where Wendy's commitment to the value of education and getting paid well for your work doesn't quite hold up. The average crew member at Wendy's makes only $8.11 an hour — according to survey estimates from Glassdoor — even though many of them have high school (and even college) degrees.

But at least we can listen to one lesson from Dave that certainly holds true: It's never too late to go back to school.

If reaching academic success made self-made millionaire (and, let's just say it, everyone's honorary grandpa) Dave Thomas proud, I think we all should keep the value of an education in mind.

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