FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Jan. 8 (UPI) -- Wendy's founder Dave Thomas, the kindly star of the hamburger chain's commercials, died Tuesday of liver cancer at his home in Fort Lauderdale. He was 69.
A statement by Wendy's International Inc. in Dublin, Ohio, said Thomas had a carcinoid tumor, a slow-growing cancer, for more than a decade. He had also been treated in recent years for kidney, heart and gall bladder ailments.
Thomas founded Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburger restaurants Nov. 15, 1969, in Columbus, Ohio, naming it for his second-youngest daughter.
Wendy's has grown to more than 6,000 restaurants nationwide, one of the biggest fast-food chains in the world. It merged with Tim Hortons of Canada and the system has sales exceeding $8 billion.
Thomas appeared in more than 800 commercials since 1989, and research showed that consumers strongly believed in his sincere, often humorous pitches.
"Although Dave was widely popular, he was never very comfortable as a celebrity. He kept reminding us he was simply a hamburger cook," said Jack Schuessler, chairman and CEO of Wendy's.
"Dave passed his torch to all of us in the company he loved. We'll miss him dearly and we promise to carry on the culture and tradition he created for us," Schuessler said.
Thomas was born July 2, 1932, in Atlantic City, N.J., and was adopted six weeks later by a Michigan couple. He became a passionate advocate for the cause of adoption, and in 1992 created the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. The foundation is dedicated to raising awareness for the 134,000 foster children available for adoption and helping to make adoption easier and more affordable.
He dropped out of school to work as a cook at the age of 15, a move he considered a mistake. Forty-five years later he received his high school degree at Coconut Creek High School in south Florida.
Thomas was honored repeatedly in Fort Lauderdale for his contributions to the community. He supported nonprofit organizations that included the Children's Home Society of Florida and the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.
The I. Lorraine Thomas Children's Emergency Home, named after his wife, opened to provide shelter to abused and neglected children in 1994.
Thomas is survived by Lorraine Thomas, his wife of 47 years, and five children. Funeral arrangements are pending.