I met Truett Cathy at a Rotary Club meeting where I received a certificate for my high school leadership achievements. I was just 17 years old. Little did I know the impact that meeting would have on my life.
Mr. Cathy spent some time with me that day. In fact, he gave me a set of motivational tapes by Zig Ziglar, a tape recorder to play them on, a $50 check, and a promise to put me to work for Chick-fil-A if I would go on to college and graduate. Off to Athens I went to attend the University of Georgia.
I listened to those tapes, served my fellow students in various capacities, and set some goals. One of those goals was to become a statewide elected official. Upon graduation, I went back to Mr. Cathy’s humble Hapeville office, did the interview, got the offer — but turned down the opportunity to run a Chick-fil-A store in Texas because of my desire to enter Georgia politics one day. Looking back, I can’t believe I told this man I couldn’t move out of state.
After being elected, I visited with Mr. Cathy that first year and thanked him for his challenge and mentorship—albeit it through cassette tapes. The result was still the same — a changed life. Something, it turns out, that he did with literally thousands of young people like me.
You see, helping kids was really Truett Cathy’s specialty. People just think it is chicken because his company does that so well. Look at their business today. Of their 60,000-employee workforce, 80 percent are less than 21 years old. This is a company that gets these young people to say “It’s my pleasure” on cue whenever a customer says any version of “thank you.” Those who are parents know that this is no small feat. This respect, an accompanying work ethic, and career opportunities have served many of his former employees well in life.
But Truett Cathy’s commitment to children and youth extends far beyond Rotary Club honorees and store employees. Mr. Cathy, with profit made from selling chicken sandwiches, has rescued hundreds of orphans and under-privileged kids from a certain life of poverty and all that can go with that. Mr. Cathy’s WinShape Foundation establishes foster homes — paying a full-time salary to foster parents to care for the kids, even buying the house, van, and groceries. He often funds vacations, college educations, and weddings. Add to that the WinShape camps serving 15,000 kids of all socio-economic stripes per summer and his foundation is taking a huge burden off of our government social services.
Truett Cathy lived a life of vision and purpose. He successfully built a business that people usually feel fortunate to work for, and he transmitted his values continually — even through serving fried chicken. He was focused on young people, and knew how to assess character and potential. He was not afraid to challenge a person, and certainly not afraid to give his money away.
We’ll miss Truett, but his legacy will live on through the many people he has touched.
Tim Echols serves on the Georgia Public Service Commission. He considers Truett Cathy a mentor in his life since age 17.