By Bob Allen
Chick-fil-A founder S. Truett Cathy, a devout Southern Baptist layman known for building his business empire on principles of his Christian faith, died Sept. 8 at age 93.
Cathy, who taught 13-year-old boys in Sunday school at First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Ga., for more than 50 years, opened the first Chick-fil-A in 1967. Today the chain includes 1,800 restaurants in 40 states and Washington, D.C., producing annual sales of $5 billion.
He is credited with creating the original Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich and pioneering fast-food service at shopping malls, but his biggest claim to fame may be his policy of closing all Chick-fil-A restaurants on Sunday to allow employees the opportunity to go to church.
Cathy always claimed his restaurants did more business in six days than the competition did in seven. He told Baptist Press in 1992 the policy benefitted the business by attracting the kind of employees who want to attend church and be with their families on the Lord’s Day.
The company’s corporate purpose — “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A” — ran into controversy 2012.
In an interview with the Biblical Recorder published July 2, 2012, Cathy’s son and current Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy pleaded “guilty as charged” to the company’s support of traditional marriage, right after intense political debate over an amendment to the North Carolina constitution banning gay marriage.
Two weeks later the story appeared in Baptist Press, setting off critics who accused Cathy of flip-flopping on a statement he made in 2011 denying that the company is anti-gay. Dan Cathy later said he hadn’t changed his mind about the issue, but he regretted turning the family business into a battleground for the culture wars.
Truett Cathy said in interviews that he never found conflict between biblical principles and business practices. In 1984 he started the WinShape Foundation, intended to “shape winners” by helping young people succeed in life through scholarships and other youth-support programs.
The foundation provides scholarships to 120 students at Berry College, a private, liberal-arts school in Rome, Ga. That program stirred debate in 2009, after one of the students attending on a WinShape scholarship reported conducting an exorcism in a campus dorm room.
The foundation also operates 13 foster care homes and a two-week summer camp. In 2003, Cathy helped his son and daughter-in-law, Bubba and Cindy, open WinShape Retreat, a marriage-enrichment center on the campus of Berry College.
Cathy’s daughter, Trudy, married John White, a Samford University graduate who worked as a regional field adviser and assistant to the president of the Chick-Fil-A before the two were appointed Southern Baptist missionaries to Brazil in 1983.
White served as treasurer for the organization of Southern Baptist missionaries in Brazil before coming to IMB headquarters as assistant vice president for overseas operations in 1995. He became the IMB’s executive vice president in 1996 and stepped down in 2003.
The couple went on to form LifeShape, a sister organization to WinShape with ministries including Impact 360, a nine-month “gap year” academic program for students ages 18-20 that earns college credit from Union University in Jackson, Tenn.
Other survivors include Cathy’s wife of 65 years, Jeannette McNeil Cathy, 19 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
A private family viewing is scheduled at 3 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 9, at First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Ga. Two public viewings will follow from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday and from noon until 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 10.
A public funeral service will be held at First Baptist Church Jonesboro at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 10, with a private burial service for family Sept. 11 in Atlanta.