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Chick-Fil-A Founder's Wife Left a Powerful Legacy

A CHALLENGING START

The first Chick-Fil-A (CFA) restaurant opened in an Atlanta mall in 1967.  With 51 consecutive years of increasing revenue, much has been written about and by its founder, S. Truett Cathy.  Trudy says her mother, Jeannette McNeil Cathy, was also an intergral part of the business, and the heart of the family, though most people know little about her.  “I’m not sure she’d let me write a book about her,” she says of her mom, who preferred to remain out of the spotlight.  Trudy says her mom’s life and legacy are well worth the read.

Jeannette was born in late 1922, and abandoned by her father three months later.  In fact, the only time she laid eyes on him again was at his funeral decades later.  She was raised by her loving, resourceful, single mother and grandparents who mustered the family through the Great Depression of 1929-1939.  Her grandfather, like millions of Americans in those days, was out of work, so her mother supported them all for a time as a seamstress for Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, and by sewing costumes for little girls at dancing schools.  Young Jeannette heard very little about God until age five, when a family friends invited her to church.  There she heard about a God who was her heavenly father – One who would never leave her.  Jeannette was elated over such good news, and ran home to tell her mother all about it.  The pair was baptized together not long after.  Jeannette continued to seek God and years later, decided to expand her Biblical studies by attending both college and seminary, hardly a typical path for a young woman in the 1940s.  On an Easter break during seminary, Jeannette was invited to dinner by neighbors she’d known for years, who insisted one of the brothers come pick her up. The brother was 25-year-old Truett Cathy.  

“THE FIRST LADY OF CHICK-FIL-A”

Jeannette was given this title by her son, Dan, CFA’s current president and CEO.  Jeannette referred to herself as “Chief Support Officer” of the company, and Trudy says she truly was.  Even before she married Truett in 1948, she helped in his first restaurant, “The Dwarf Grill.”  For years, Jeannette was at her husband’s side waiting tables, running the register, keeping the books, and mostly encouraging him and all the employees in every way she could.  “They were partners in every sense of the word,” Trudy says. “As a result, her fingerprints were all over the company.  Dad himself never grew tired of saying that CFA wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for my mother  ‘She can do and has done anything and everything,’ he’d say.  All I ever did was put a piece of chicken between a buttered bun.’”  

Trudy says one of the greatest things her mother ever did for CFA after many years of success, was to ask if they could wipe out their debt.  The leadership took a long, hard look at how that might be accomplished, and though it took a decade, the billion-dollar company did what most businesses thought couldn’t be done. Though the company continues to use lines of credit today, financial accountability, good stewardship, and generous giving to others have always been key values.

A SELFLESS EXAMPLE

Though Jeannette’s start in life was very challenging, she was famous amongst all who knew her for a particular phrase:  “YOU CAN … through God’s help.”  Trudy says her mother lived her whole life thinking that way, and encouraging others to do the same.  That belief was evidenced in everything from winning talent contests at age six, to attending seminary as a young woman, to learning how to manage the family farm and fix appliances herself, to leading three children to know and love the Lord, to advising her husband in business and personal decisions, to co-founding the Winshape Foundation of CFA in 1984, which initially provided scholarships for students, and has grown to offer six ministries, including summer camps, team building, college prep, foster care, marriage building, and retreats.  Trudy says her mother found her greatest joy in serving others, and that attitude left its mark on the corporate culture of CFA.  Spiritually, she says her mom couldn’t have been a stronger example.  To this day, there are countless Bible verses, written prayers, sermon notes, etc., tucked around Truett and Jeannette’s farm house.  “We found them laying on tables , taped to mirrors, stuffed in books, sitting on the piano bench, stuck on the refrigerator, and jammed into every other nook and cranny throughout the house,” she writes.  “Truly, I have never seen anyone as fiercely committed in their faith, as passionate about prayer and Bible study, and as humble in exercising the power of their spirit as my mother.  I doubt I ever will.”    
 

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Guest Info

Credits

Author, latest, A Quiet Strength (Forefront (Self), 2020)

Co-founder of Lifeshape and Impact 360, philanthropic arms of Chick-Fil-A

Ambassador, Chick-Fil-A

Former director of Winshape girls camps, 13 years

Former missionary to Brazil, 10 years

Degree in Early Childhood Education from Samford University, Birmingham, AL

Married to John White, 40 years;  four children, 15 grandchildren

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