And Regretting an Obnoxious 1989 Column

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On Jan. 7, the staff was sorting through the last contents of our Washington office in preparation for moving the entire operation to the AdReview Viewing Lab in a secure location outside the city. There in a stack of books we found a copy of Dave's Way, the autobiography of Dave Thomas, written in 1991. We smiled, and then put the volume in the pile of stuff to give away.

This careless act puzzled our colleague Ira Teinowitz, who thumbed through the book and found a personal inscription from the author.

"To Bob Garfield, My Favorite Critic," it read. "Best wishes, Dave Thomas."

Ira was right. This was a keeper. I put the book aside with a small collection of other accumulated treasures. A few hours later Dave, generous Dave, died in his Florida home.

Vicious attack
Back in 1989, AdReview got off to sort of a rough start with Dave Thomas. Wendy's had just unveiled the first pool of spots featuring its founder as spokesman, occasioning the most nasty, vicious, gratuitous personal attack in the column's long and storied history.

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We'll spare you most of the gory details. Suffice to say that in the space of 750 words, we managed to ridicule Dave's diction, his intelligence and his looks.

"The man is a steer in a half-sleeve shirt," we sneered, and we wish we could have pulled the words back. Indeed, shortly thereafter, for the first and only time in the history of AdReview, we apologized for being so mean. Alas, the apology was too late. That sentence is by far the most quoted nine words we've ever penned, painfully recurring in the press every time we think it has finally disappeared forever. It is our personal herpes sore.

Sorer for us than for Dave, as it turned out. The man was too gracious and good-natured to harbor a grudge.

Surpassing good nature
His surpassing good nature, of course, was precisely the quality that made him so suited to his role as TV spokesman for the company he founded. There he stood, 800 times over 13 years, with the wan smile of a man bemused and slightly overwhelmed by the strangeness all around him, taking refuge in the simple pleasures of the latest Wendy's entree. Unlike so many spokespeople for so many brands, cast for celebrity's sake and nothing else, Dave was the living embodiment of the product itself.

Lest you dismiss us entirely as an irredeemable jerk, allow us please to quote from that original column, which, for all its obnoxiousness, took note of the conceptual soundness of the strategy: "Not only does he represent the back-to-basics emphasis on quality and service, his folksy and unpolished appeal theoretically will generate consumer sympathy. Isn't he, like a Wendy's hamburger, old-fashioned and charmingly square?"

Yes, he was. Also loveable, avuncular, unpretentious and credible in a way few celebrities ever are. Truth be told, he never became quite the master of the performing arts, but his early awkwardness quickly disappeared, and Dave vastly transcended not only his own limitations as an actor, but also the consistently dreadful material he was asked to deliver. In commercial after stupid commercial, his essential Dave-ness invariably shone through.

Iconic and beloved
His generosity to the community is well documented. His generosity to us -- certainly not his favorite advertising critic -- was beyond any reasonable expectation of civility. But it was his generosity of spirit, projecting from him like a visible aura, that made him so irresistible, and iconic and beloved.

In his last few spots, we were pained to observe, Dave Thomas looked tired and gaunt. We wistfully recalled the Dave of 1989, that awkward but hardy steer in the half-sleeve shirt.

Surely the man was being playful in calling us his favorite critic. But he was our favorite talking head, and we will dearly, deeply miss him.

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