Dave Thomas' oldest daughter, Pam, went from flipping burgers to running 33 Wendy's franchises.
It was the early 1970s and Pam Thomas was a teenager who wanted her own look, and she wanted it to be cool.
So she leaned over the kitchen sink, squeezed bottled black dye all over her brown hair and then wrapped the top of her head with a plastic bag. Her fingers were a sticky mess and her eyes were all red and watery from the awful, acidic smell.
Then the doorbell rang.
She probably rolled her eyes at the intrusion, but answered it anyway.
A dapper English gentleman stood on the front porch of her family's Upper Arlington home. "Arthur Treacher here," he intoned. "Is your father home?"
Yes, that Arthur Treacher, the one of fish and chips fame.
And her father that he was searching for? That would be Dave Thomas. Yes, that Dave Thomas, the one of Wendy's restaurant fame.
Pam remembers the scene well. She flipped her head around and yelled over her shoulder into the house: Daaaaaaaaaaad!
Then she went to finish her hair.
So it went for the five children of Dave and Lorraine Thomas, a down-to-earth couple who founded their hamburger chain with a single store on Broad Street Downtown in 1969 and built it into a billion-dollar company headquartered in Central Ohio.
"It was an extraordinary life in an ordinary world," said Pam, the oldest of the siblings. "Really, we were normal kids trying to do normal stuff, and then these abnormal things would happen. They were our 'a-ha' moments."
Because the Thomases built Wendy's into such an iconic business, it is easy to forget its simple roots: Dave and Lorraine and their young children moved from Indiana to Ohio in 1962 toting nothing but a U-Haul packed with boxes and a station wagon stuffed with dreams. They lived at an ABC Motor Lodge while Dave tried to salvage a flagging Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise.
Pam has come a circuitous way from those black hair-dye days, and has made a career of reinvention. She has coordinated travel for folks at Wendy's corporate ("I was terrible at it. I would forget to book people home."); owned Pamela's, a shoe store in Dublin (the floor-to-ceiling custom shoe cabinets in her home closet are evidence of her lifelong obsession); ran volunteer services for two Columbus mayors; and was part of a team that led a remarkable turnaround of a failing Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, transforming it into the cultural gem it is now.
Today, she and her siblings--with the help of their mother--own Thomas 5 Limited and operate 33 Wendy's franchises in Columbus, Youngstown and Lake County.
These days, she is Pam Farber, a 57-year-old successful businesswoman, a mother of three grown children (Ashley, Alyson and Andrew), a grandmother of two (David and Steven) and a heartbroken widow, having lost Steve Farber, the love of her life and her husband of 25 years, at Christmastime 2010.
Her dad died in 2002, and the family has divested as majority shareholder in Wendy's, but the truths that both her parents taught her have shaped each decision she has made.
Even after Wendy's became a success, a trademark practically synonymous with Columbus, no one in the family ever lost sight of their humble beginnings. They never lost their home-spun values, and each Thomas holds tight to a strong belief in family, community and giving back because it is the right thing to do.
"I've had such a blessed life," Pam said. "Yet I guess what I hope people take away when they meet me is that I try to find so much joy in everything. I just want people to be happy, you know?"
Despite all of her success, she now finds herself at another crossroads with the loss of her husband. Steve Farber and his family built several successful businesses themselves, including Farber Specialty Vehicles in Reynoldsburg. He died on Dec. 28, 2010, of sudden and unexplained internal bleeding. He was 63.
Pam still is reeling. "We were like two trees. We both were strong and standing tall when we met and then our branches crossed, grew together. It made us unbreakable." Then she softly laughs, even through her tears. "That's corny, isn't it? But it's true."
A philanthropist, she keeps Nationwide Children's Hospital close to her heart and, in addition to owning the restaurants with her siblings, she is executive director of the Old Fashioned Franchise Association, a group of franchisees who hope to preserve the core values on which Wendy's was founded and protect what her father believed in.
It is a position for which she earned her stripes. After all, there were no gimmes in the Thomas household. The philosophy at home was study hard, play hard and then go put on your blue-and-white pinstriped pinafore and get to work. Do you think those hamburgers grill themselves?
She cut her teeth making sandwiches at Store No. 2 on Henderson Road, the training ground for all of the Thomas children. Her boss was a manager named Paul Gronbach.
"Pam would get down on the floor and scrub the tiles 'til they shined," said Gronbach who, after a career with Wendy's corporate, now owns seven franchises in Texas. "You never would have known Pam was Dave's daughter. If something needed done she did it, no questions asked. I know few people with more passion for love, learning and life than Pam."
Sitting with her feet curled up under her on the comfy blue couch in the cozy family room of her Upper Arlington home, Pam laughs when told that other people say nice things about her.
"Really?" she asked. Then, she closed her eyes and said with just a hint of awe, "You know, I may have gone to school smelling like pickles and onions, but I've done OK, right? Dad always told all of us kids, 'This is my life, my dream. You have to go find yours. Find what you are passionate about and make it your own.' "
For Pam, the road ahead was far from smooth. Though she knows she has had many advantages in life, money and influence can dig no moat wide enough nor build any wall high enough to keep all demons at bay.
She flunked out of college, then had a disastrous first marriage to a man damaged and haunted by the Vietnam War. They moved to Florida and there, in a tumultuous relationship fueled by his addictions, Pam lost hope.
"It was a dark, dark time," she said. "When you fall in that pit, you don't know how to get out. Others want to help you but they can't. It breaks you and eventually, you have to fight your way out and find a way to put yourself back together."
Her family finally brought her and her two young children home, and the love of others and years of Al-Anon meetings (the support group for those with loved ones who battle alcoholism) kept her on track. Once settled in Central Ohio, she did what she'd always done: She dug in.
"Pam is a risk taker," said R.L. Richards, who manages the R. David Thomas Trust and has known Pam since she was a teen. "She is thoughtful about it, and not rash, but she does what she wants and what she thinks is right. She has earned her spurs."
In business, Pam is focused, driven and has the chops to do the ugly tasks sometimes required, the things that no one else wants to do, her younger sister, Wendy Thomas Morse said. She is easily bored, she thrives on structure and she cannot function without her BlackBerry for longer than a minute. Seriously. Wendy said her sister sometimes is on two phones at once. She said there should be a support group for that.
She is bold and expressive; every emotion that she feels is a normal reaction, times 10. She smiles a lot, hugs even more. She asks a lot of questions and loves to listen to other people's stories. She dislikes talking about herself. She'll dance all night even when everyone else long ago stopped, and she'll have so much fun doing it that you can't help but smile as you watch.
"Life is for living, right? That sounds corny, doesn't it? But you know, I have lived well in a wonderful family and I have a lot to be happy about and thankful for."
And when Pam speaks of being thankful, the conversation always turns to Steve Farber. She owned her shoe store in 1985 when a mutual friend introduced them. Steve was 37 then, a lifelong bachelor, a bit of a playboy. She was a divorced mother of two and skeptical. Then she saw him--all 6 foot 3 inches of confidence and charm--and they had their first date at Chi-Chi's Mexican Restaurant in Dublin. It was another of those a-ha moments.
"He was so amazing," she said. "I felt like I was home." They had a summer wedding at a Downtown church a little more than a year later.
Right then, Pam said, she came into her own. "He loved me for me. Not because I was a Thomas, not because I was anything, but just because I was Pam. Steve came into my life and gave me confidence. He made me feel like I could do anything. Then he stood beside me while I tried."
Together, they put their foot on the gas pedal and never really let up. Eventually, their daughter was born, and even with three young children at home--neither Steve nor Pam considered theirs a blended family; they all were one--Farber enrolled at Capital University to study political science. She received her bachelor's degree at the age of 40. Her father gave the commencement address, while her family looked on. "It would be hard to ever top that moment," she said. "Life was perfect."
With college degree in hand, she looked for new challenges. She found them at what was then the Franklin Park Conservatory on West Broad Street. When she became development director there in 1995, rest assured, the conservatory was not what it is today. It was bankrupt, run down. The organization didn't own so much as a weed-whip or a push mower. Pam was expected to find donors to build the place into something special. So she took her telephone and chair when she left her job at the mayor's office at City Hall--the Conservatory had no office equipment--and got busy.
Paul Redman came to the Conservatory as horticulture director about a month later. (He soon became director). What they accomplished was nothing short of phenomenal, he said.
"The great thing about Pam is that she will stand on the edge of a cliff with you and look out at what could be," said Redman, who now is director of Longwood Gardens in Philadelphia. "She scans the possibilities through the lens of reality, and after she has weighed all the risks, she's not afraid to leap. Or she'll hold your hand while you do."
He watched Pam blossom during those years. "Franklin Park Conservatory gave her an identity. She was a critical part of a true success story, and she stood on her own to do it. She could say, 'My father didn't do it. My family didn't do it. I did it.' It was wonderful to watch."
She agrees it was a transformative time.
"Those years are when I became Pam Farber. Not Dave Thomas' daughter, not Ashley, Aly and Andy's mom, not Steve's wife. But Pam Farber, just confident, happy and strong."
Today, she is reinventing herself again, this time as a too-young widow trying to figure out what's next. She thrives on her work with the franchise association and stays busy with her charity work. She is starting new traditions and delighting, especially, in the joy of her two young grandsons. She surrounds herself with the thing that is most precious to her: the love of family and faithful friends.
It will be exciting, her friends say, to see where the future takes her. It may not be the life she envisioned, and it surely isn't the one she had planned.
But when Pam Farber is in, she's all in. So whatever life is ahead, one thing is for certain: it should be