The inscription in black ink reads, “To Michael, Thanks for your letter — S. Truett Cathy, Proverbs 22:1.” When I heard that the legendary founder of Chick-fil-A had died on Sept. 8 at the age of 93, I took his book down off my shelf and thought back to my college days. I had written the inventor of the fried chicken sandwich to thank him for sponsoring a scholarship that I received to Oglethorpe University, and even though we had never met, he kindly sent me a copy of his book, “It’s Easier to Succeed Than to Fail.”
Something should be said around here on behalf of Truett Cathy. Set aside the fact that he was one of Harding’s ASI distinguished speakers in 2008. Set aside the fact that if you analyzed the blood content of the average Harding student, you would find it was 28 percent chicken biscuit. Here was a man who embodied what our University stands for in so many ways. A Bible teacher and mentor to generations of young boys, a man who opened his home to more than 40 foster children, married for 66 years, a supporter of Christian education, and a business leader who stood by his principles when others dismissed them as quaint, Samuel Truett Cathy lived out his faith for more than eight decades.
He opened his first restaurant in Hapeville, Ga. in 1946, but it would be 20 years before he would create the signature sandwich and the chain that made him famous. As a boy growing up during the Great Depression, he had helped his struggling parents purely by using his wits — at the age of 8 he bought bottled Cokes in six-packs for 25 cents and sold them for a nickel apiece, pocketing the nickel profit. Eventually, this same business savvy would make him a billionaire as head of one of the most successful fast-food chains in American history.
His success was the result — as it usually is — of hard work and dedication. He and his brother Ben built that first restaurant mostly by their own labor, and they ran it themselves, learning the trade as they went. At first, closing on Sunday had simply been a matter of sheer exhaustion. At the end of their first week in business, the tired brothers decided to take a day off to rest. But closing on Sunday out of principle remained Cathy’s practice from then on. It was non-negotiable, and he politely declined every time a mall owner begged him to open his restaurant in the food court on that day.
So many other Christian ideals guided his business and personal ethic. He treated employees like family, and he spent millions of dollars on scholarships for young people who worked in his restaurants. A survivor of colon cancer, he ministered to sick children. He spent hours praying with business associates and teenagers. He gave wise counsel to friends and to strangers. He supported his daughter’s choice to move to Brazil to be a missionary, even as it broke his heart for her to move so far away. He held himself to a high personal standard of conduct. He didn’t even swear. According to one of his sons, if Truett Cathy ever hit his thumb with a hammer, the worst he would say was, “Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
Chick-fil-A has flourished not only because it serves great food and has a courteous and efficient staff (I’ve never been to one that wasn’t spotless, fast and friendly), but Truett Cathy was also a marketing genius. In 1967, at the debut of his new sandwich, he invited two rival newspaper editors to his restaurant, promising each he would buy a full-page ad in his paper. The two editors hated each other and constantly traded barbs in print. But when they came to the restaurant, Cathy promised to buy the expensive ads only if the two enemies would shake hands for a photo-op. The caption that ran under the picture: “We disagree on many things, but we agree that this is the best chicken sandwich we’ve ever had.”
What was Truett Cathy’s legacy? Yes, it’s 1,800 restaurants and $4 billion in annual revenue. But as for the man himself, ask the children who were riding in his car one day when he called Jimmy Carter just so the former President could say hi to the kids. Ask the man who mentioned to Cathy at a conference that he was struggling with a job decision, and later found the famous entrepreneur knocking on his hotel room door to pray with him about it. Ask the foster children he personally rocked to sleep in his home.
Or ask the Oglethorpe University graduate who made it through college with Truett Cathy’s help. And who absolutely loves Waffle fries. And who had some today before he wrote this.
Proverb 22:1 says, “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.” Truett Cathy chose well, and he ended up with both.