Dave Thomas was born July 2, 1932 in Atlantic City, New Jersey to an unwed mother. He was adopted at the age of six weeks to Rex and Auleva Thomas from Kalamazoo, Michigan. When Thomas was only five-years-old his mother died from Rheumatic fever, his father, who never openly showed his son affection, was a laborer and moved the family a lot from state to state for work. Rex went on to remarry three times, leaving Thomas to never feel like he fit in with his family, especially with his father's second wife, who brought two daughters into the picture.
Thomas lied about his age in order to gain work at the young age of twelve. This provided a needed escape and the opportunity to learn values that would later add to his success.
He also learned many valuable life lessons from his grandmother, Minnie Sinclair, his mother's mother. He spent summers on her farm and there he was taught the value of not only a strong work ethic, but of doing quality work. The summer that probably stands out the most to Dave Thomas was the summer when she told him the truth about his identity, that of an adoptee. Thomas describes in a 2000, interview with Marlene Cimons how this news, while upsetting, was also helpful, in that it seemed to explain a lot. Grandma helped him handle the news and told him that one day he was going to "amount to something."
Dave dropped out of high school at the age of fifteen, in order to work full time. He described this as the biggest mistake of his life, but in 1993, he passed his GED exam after working with a tutor. The high school graduating class at that time in Fort Lauderdale, Florida allowed Dave to join their class and he was awarded his high school diploma.
He joined the Army at the age of eighteen and returned home and met and married Lorraine in 1954 and had five children.
He began working for Col. Harland Sanders in 1956, and turned around four different KFC restaurants. On November 15, 1969, he opened his first Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers Restaurant.
Thomas did try to find his birth family, but both of his parents had already passed. He did meet his maternal grandparents and several paternal cousins before his passing.
While growing up, adoption was something to be ashamed of and was a secret to keep from everyone. Thomas never spoke about his adoptee status until sometime in 1980's during a motivation speech when he mentioned the fact that he was adopted, as a way to encourage others to rise above their up upbringing.
Later, an attendee to his speech encouraged him to share his adoption story more often. This was the beginning of Dave Thomas's interest in adoption issues.
While Dave Thomas's background was not of a warm and comfy family life, he knew he was better off than other children as he never spent a night in an orphanage, a group home, or foster care. He had a family that provided the basics and that was more than what a lot of children had and those basics enabled him to grow and have a chance in life. He wanted to help children find not only this sense of a stable and permanent home, but of a real family. He knew that most adoptive families sought after babies, and Thomas wanted to help older children, children in foster care.
In 1990, Dave Thomas started offering adoption benefits to his employees. In 1992, Dave Thomas started the charity, The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption (DTFA). Even after his passing in 2002, his spirit lives on as the Wendy's Wonderful Kids was created as a signature program of DTFA with a focus on helping find adoptive homes for children in foster care.