ATLANTA (BP) — S. Truett Cathy, founder of the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain famous for closing on Sundays, died today (Sept. 8). He was 93.
“I was not so committed to financial success that I was willing to abandon my principles and priorities,” Cathy once said. “Our decision to close on Sunday was our way of honoring God and of directing our attention to things that mattered more than our business.”
Cathy, one of Southern Baptists’ most respected businessmen, was surrounded by loved ones when died at his home at 1:35 a.m., according to an announcement from the Atlanta-based company.
Mel Blackaby, senior pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, described Cathy as “perhaps the most gracious Christian man I have ever known, and it was a privilege to be his pastor.”
“Having taught eighth-grade boys Sunday School class for 52 years, he chose to invest his life in the next generation of leaders,” Blackaby said in a statement to The Christian Index of the Georgia Baptist Convention. “Everywhere I go, I meet leaders with a smile on their face who say, ‘I am one of Truett’s boys!’
“His winsome personality left a positive impression on every person he met, and his deep love for the Lord was undeniable,” Blackaby said. “In the marketplace he may be known as ‘the inventor of the chicken sandwich,’ but his success in business simply gave him the opportunity to serve people and point them to Christ. Truett’s life is the story of a man and his God. He leaves an example for all to follow.”
More than 1,800 Chick-fil-A restaurants operate in 40 states and Washington, D.C., recording $5 billion in annual sales in 2013 and 47 consecutive years of annual sales increases. Chick-fil-A was listed among the “Top 20 Brands with the Most Loyal Fans on Facebook” in a report by market research firm LoudDoor released in August.
Cathy, a native of Eatonton, Ga., who moved to Atlanta with his family at age 4, has received more than 100 national, state and community awards since 1984 and 18 honorary doctorates since 1991.
His key Bible verse was Proverbs 22:1: “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold.”
After serving in the Army from 1939-45, Cathy and his brother Ben opened their first restaurant in 1946, a venue so small they named it The Dwarf Grill (later, The Dwarf House). A second suburban Atlanta location opened in 1951 but burned down in 1960. In reopening and repurposing the restaurant, Cathy became one of the pioneers of fast-food restaurants in greater Atlanta.
In 1967 Cathy continued to chart new ground, opening his first Chick-fil-A venue in a mall followed in 1986 by the first free-standing Chick-fil-A.
Ethical and biblical principles were central to each of Cathy’s steps forward.
“We live in a changing world, but we need to be reminded that the important things have not changed,” he said. “I have always encouraged my restaurant operators and team members to give back to the local community. We should be about more than just selling chicken; we should be a part of our customers’ lives and the communities in which we serve.”
J. Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, said Cathy “will long be remembered for taking strong Christian stands in the marketplace including keep the Lord’s day as a day of rest and worship for all Chick-fil-A employees and influencing his company’s more recent stand honoring the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman.”
“It would be difficult to measure the positive impact that Truett Cathy has had upon young people through his generous [employee] scholarship programs that have assisted many in their desire to complete their college education,” White said. “Georgia Baptists extend our prayers to the Cathy family as well as to all the Chick-fil-A family for the comfort and peace of the Lord.”
Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Cathy “lived before the entire world a strong commitment to faith, family and work. His convictional leadership not only built a great family, but also one of America’s most phenomenal companies.”
Floyd, pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas, said he will never forget Cathy’s address at a regional business summit several years ago. “To this day, it remains the largest crowd we have had in our 12-year history. His life, legacy and personality captivated the audience.”
Frank S. Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, said he was “privileged to meet with Truett Cathy on several occasions. I deeply appreciated his stand on Christian convictions. Most of all, I admired his tenacity and faithfulness, especially exhibited in teaching young boys at First Baptist Jonesboro, Ga. His example of steadfastness and commitment to teaching the Word of God is an example to us all.”
The president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Russell D. Moore, said Cathy “demonstrated that the lordship of Christ is about the whole of life. He modeled integrity, hard work and compassion. The ‘closed on Sundays’ sign on his stores is a countercultural statement that man does not live by bread alone, and there is more to life than a bottom line. He is now in that eternal Sabbath rest, where the banquet is never closed. On earth, he will be missed and, I pray, emulated.”
Cathy is survived by his wife of 65 years, Jeannette McNeil Cathy; sons Dan T. and Don “Bubba” Cathy; daughter Trudy Cathy White; 19 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
Dan Cathy became president of Chick-fil-A in 2001, and chairman and chief executive officer in 2013 while Truett Cathy continued in the role of chairman emeritus until his death. “Bubba” Cathy leads a retreat center founded by the company, while his daughter, Trudy Cathy White, is involved with a summer girls’ camp, also stemming from her father’s charitable work. She and her husband John served 12 years as Southern Baptist missionaries in Brazil. John White subsequently was the International Mission Board’s associate vice president for overseas operations from 1995-2001 and executive vice president from 2001-03.
Truett Cathy established his WinShape Foundation in 1984, reflecting his desire to “shape winners” by helping young people succeed in life through scholarships and other youth-support programs. In addition, through its Leadership Scholarship Program, the Chick-fil-A chain has given more than $32 million in financial assistance to Chick-fil-A restaurant employees since 1973.
As part of Cathy’s WinShape Homes program, 13 foster care homes were launched and operated by Cathy and the WinShape Foundation to provide long-term care for foster children within a positive family environment. WinShape Homes has provided a safe and secure home to more than 450 children in which they could grow physically, spiritually and emotionally. WinShape Camps was founded in 1985 as a residential two-week summer camp to impact young people through experiences that enhance their Christian faith, character and relationships. Each summer, more than 18,000 campers attend WinShape Camps.
In 2003, Cathy’s son Bubba and daughter-in-law Cindy opened WinShape Retreat, a retreat and conference facility on the campus of Berry College in Rome, Ga. The multi-use facility hosts marriage-enrichment retreats along with business and church-related conferences. In the summer months, it also houses WinShape Camp for girls, directed by Trudy Cathy White.
Cathy was the author of “It’s Easier to Succeed Than to Fail” (Thomas Nelson Publishing, 1989); “Eat Mor Chikin: Inspire More People” (Looking Glass Books, 2002); “It’s Better to Build Boys Than Mend Men” (Looking Glass Books, 2004); “How Did You Do It, Truett?”(Looking Glass Books, 2007); and “Wealth, Is It Worth It?” (Looking Glass Books, 2011). He also was co-author of “The Generosity Factor” with Ken Blanchard (Zondervan Publishing, 2002).
A public funeral service is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 10, at 2 p.m. at First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Ga. The public is asked to park at nearby Tara Stadium, 1055 Battle Creek Road, and take the shuttle to the funeral. Shuttles will run from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. from the stadium to First Baptist and, after the funeral service, from First Baptist to Tara Stadium until 4:30 p.m.
Two visitation times have been scheduled at First Baptist Church: 4–7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 9, and noon to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 10, immediately preceding the funeral.
In lieu of flowers, the Cathy family has asked that donations be made to the WinShape Foundation to further Truett Cathy’s legacy of developing and supporting young people. Donations can be sent to WinShape Foundation, Attn: Linda Hedgecock, 5200 Buffington Road, Atlanta, GA 30349.
Art Toalston is editor of Baptist Press. J. Gerald Harris, editor of The Christian Index (www.christianindex.org), newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and managing editor Joe Westbury contributed to this report. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).