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The day was another 7 a.m.-until-11 p.m. grinder for R. David Thomas.

At 11:30 p.m. he was atop one of Atlanta's ultra-modern ice cube hotels, fumbling at his room door with what he soon discovered was the wrong key.Bone-tired, he trudged back into the elevator as he worked himself into a rage. Another man stepped on the elevator and asked: ``Aren't you with Wendy's?'

The face of the founder and senior chairman of the board of Wendy's International relaxed slightly.

And the anger washed away as the stranger talked not about Wendy's hamburgers, but how proud he was to have a daughter and how proud Thomas must be to have a daughter too, much less have a hamburger chain named after her.

Such is life when a man becomes a walking television commercial.

Thomas, 57, began starring in national television commercials for his $2.9 billion-a-year hamburger empire in April. Market surveys show that consumer identification of Wendy's has since jumped from 7 percent to 14 percent.

The television exposure easily makes the bearish, down-home entrepreneur the most visible trustee on the Duke University Board of Trustees, which includes Judy Woodruff, a reporter with PBS's ``The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour.'

Thomas is also on the board of visitors of Duke's Fuqua School of Business.

Thomas' role as a trustee is a wry twist on capitalism and higher education. He is a shirt-sleeves guy with a 10th-grade education who regularly bungles verb tenses and admits that he is ``not much of a reader.'

His success in the burger wars has ushered him into the tweedy confines and neo-Gothic world of one of the nation's top educational institutions.

'I give 'em a big donation,' Thomas explained in September as he sat in the lobby of the R. David Thomas Center, a $14 million complex for lodging and teaching executives. He paid $4 million of the construction cost.

Thomas F. Keller, dean of the business school, said Thomas' affiliation with Duke is part of an effort to acquaint students with all types of American business, including people-oriented entrepreneurs.

``We have speakers from America's 25 largest (corporations),' Keller said. ``They are frequently very proper and well-dressed. Then you get a David Thomas, who walks around and talks to whoever is there. You can learn an awful lot from a David Thomas.'

How Thomas linked up with Duke and came to sit in a campus building named after him is a story of money and connections.

Thomas says it was simple. ``All I wanted was a place to sleep,' he recalled.

About 15 years ago, Thomas was on campus to lose weight in the DUPAC program.

``I walked a lot. But there wasn't any place to stay. It was a zero deal' for lodging on campus or in town, he said.

Later, through gas and oil investments, Thomas met Michael Elder, an Oklahoma City resident and Duke graduate. Elder told Keller about Thomas, who was invited to speak at the business school in the late 1970s.

Thomas was appointed to the board of trustees in 1988.

Wendy's advertising agency, Backer Spielvogel Bates Inc., has capitalized on Thomas' plain-spoken, unaffected style in its commercials.

``Out of the ads comes a real sincerity,' said Rosalyn Jenkins, a Wendy's senior vice president. ``The old people look at him like he's a senior citizen. He's really like that. He's calm, very sincere.'

When Thomas visits one of his restaurants, he first seeks out the manager and each of the counter workers and introduces himself with: ``Hi. I'm Wendy's dad.' He greets each customer the same way and asks how their food is.

Next he beelines for the mop bucket. ``You can't have a clean floor with a dirty mop bucket,' said Denny Lynch, vice president of communications.

Thomas finishes off each visit by sampling the chili and ordering his usual hamburger with mustard, onion and pickle.

Easy-going as his style may appear, Thomas can make a tough decision in the cut-throat burger business. ``Profit is really an important word,' he told Duke students.

Wendy's began operating Nov. 15, 1969, in downtown Columbus, Ohio.

Today, a Wendy's restaurant opens somewhere in the world every 19 hours. There are 3,800 Wendy's restaurants in the United States and 18 other countries.


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