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Jeff Foxworthy, Andrew Young, George W. Bush salute Truett Cathy, who turns 90 today

Truett Cathy and his wife, Jeannette, are surrounded by their family as celebratory streamers fill the air at Mr. Cathy's 90th birthday celebration. Photo courtesy of Chick-fil-A/Stanley Leary

Truett Cathy and his wife, Jeannette, are surrounded by their family as celebratory streamers fill the air at Mr. Cathy's 90th birthday celebration. All photos courtesy of Chick-fil-A/Stanley Leary and Ashton Staniszewski.

Happy birthday Truett Cathy!

The Chick-fil-A founder, whose entrepreneurial journey began at age 8 with a front-yard Coca-Cola stand, continued with a paper route delivering the Atlanta Journal in the housing project where he grew up and has blossomed over decades of restaurant success into a No. 692 ranking on the most recent Forbes billionaire list, turns 90 today.

A black-tie gala celebrating his business acumen, philanthropic leadership and strong faith packed the Woodruff Arts Center Thursday night.

“I consider each one of you my friend, especially those of you who eat at Chick-fil-A!” Cathy said on the stage of Atlanta Symphony Hall, joined by his wife, Jeannette and family. “I’d like to invite you to my 100th birthday, which is coming up 10 years from now.”

Truett and Jeannette Cathy will celebrate 63 years of marriage this year. "Thanks for being the model, Mom and Dad, for all of us," said their son, Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy.

Truett and Jeannette Cathy will celebrate 63 years of marriage this year. "Thanks for being the model, Mom and Dad, for all of us," said their son, Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy.

The tribute was co-chaired by former Mayor Andrew Young and developer Tom Cousins, and the host committee included a raft of prominent Atlantans: Mayor Kasim Reed, Dan Amos, Richard Anderson, Joe Bankoff, Ken Bernhardt, Home Depot CEO Frank Blake, Jim Blanchard, Falcons owner Arthur Blank, Paul Bowers, Dr. Robert Franklin, Don Keough, Georgia Aquarium founder Bernie Marcus, Bruce McDonald, Pete McTier, Steve Robinson, Dr. Herman Russell, Horst Schulze, former KSU president Betty Siegel, Nancy Simms and Gary Stokan.

Broadway star Diana DeGarmo, Christian artist Michael W. Smith and the Atlanta Symphony Gospel Choir all performed and comedian Jeff Foxworthy emceed.

"When you have an event like this that is so monumental, you'd think they would have a host who could breathe some wisdom into the event. Sadly, that is not the case," quipped the self-effacing Jeff Foxworthy, who did a masterful job as emcee.

"When you have an event like this that is so monumental, you'd think they would have a host who could breathe some wisdom into the event. Sadly, that is not the case," quipped the self-effacing Jeff Foxworthy, who did a masterful job as emcee.

“People want to be associated with your good name,” Foxworthy said. “When people ask me where I’m from I always say, ‘Hapeville, the home of Chick-fil-A.’ As a child I remember my mother saying, ‘You have no idea how many children the Cathys are putting through college.’ That made an impression on a 10-year-old boy. Fast forward 40 years, and my wife and I are putting numerous kids through college, not only here but in Africa. Not for the publicity, but because it needs doing and because somebody showed us the way.”

The Chick-fil-A restaurant empire, which began in Greenbriar Mall in 1967, now includes more than 1,540 restaurants in 39 states and Washington, D.C. The chain has enjoyed 42 consecutive years of sales increases. In 1984 – before the first freestanding Chick-fil-A was built – Cathy established the WinShape Foundation which provides 20 to 30 scholarships annually to Berry College. Through its Leadership Scholarship Program, Chick-fil-A has given more than $25 million in college scholarships to its employees. This year, Chick-fil-A will award more than $1.9 million in scholarships to its employees.

"I appreciate the many lessons to be learned from poverty - lessons my children and grandchildren will never experience first-hand," Cathy writes in his upcoming book. "I can only describe to them what it was like to wonder whether the coal would run out before the winter did. They will never hear a grocer tell them they cannot buy more food because their parents have not paid what they owe on their account."

"I appreciate the many lessons to be learned from poverty - lessons my children and grandchildren will never experience first-hand," Cathy writes in his upcoming book. "I can only describe to them what it was like to wonder whether the coal would run out before the winter did. They will never hear a grocer tell them they cannot buy more food because their parents have not paid what they owe on their account."

The WinShape Homes program includes eight foster care homes which accommodate up to 12 children each and are operated by full-time foster parents. Cathy, a longtime Sunday School teacher of 13-year-old boys, details his dedication to children in foster care in the book “It’s Better to Build Boys Than Mend Men,” which was handed out as a parting gift to all guests.

The birthday tribute was full of happy memories. Young – who revealed that his wife, Carolyn, had surprised him earlier that day with a spicy chicken sandwich, sweet tea and cole slaw – said he has enjoyed a meaningful friendship with Cathy over the years. Their visits have “always been a delightful, prayerful, celebratory experience,” Young said.

Cousins is already looking ahead to the next big birthday.

“Truett, you’ve been a blessing to this world for 90 years, and I hope for many more. I want to celebrate your 100th!” he said. “It is a rare human being who actually practices what he preaches. Truett proudly points to what is paramount in his life, and that is his Creator.”

The evening ended with a time of prayer. As the event closed Cathy urged the audience, "Keep the important things important."

The evening ended with a time of prayer. As the event closed Cathy urged the audience, "Keep the important things important."

The evening included some surprises, including a $90,000 donation from Coca-Cola to the Chick-fil-A Foundation and a video tribute from former President George W. Bush.

“You’re a man of faith who leads by example,” the former president said. “You’ve helped millions of people around the world.”

Toward the end of the evening Cathy’s children, Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy, senior vice president Don “Bubba” Cathy and Trudy Cathy White, had yet another surprise for their dad, unveiling plans for the S. Truett Cathy Youth and Community Center, to be located near where Cathy grew up.

“Our dad has always said that every child he’s known to overcome long odds and grow into a responsible adult can point to an adult who stepped into his or her life as a friend, mentor and guide,” Dan Cathy said. “He has been that person for many children throughout his life, and we think this youth and community center will honor his legacy and bring positive changes to the lives of young people for generations to come.”

Truett Cathy and his family.

Truett Cathy and his family.

The evening ended on a reverent note, with Dan Cathy playing “Amazing Grace” on the trumpet as the audience joined the family in prayer.

The elder Cathy, who is working on a book called “Wealth: Is it Worth It?”, urged the gathering to “keep the important things important,” and recited the Bible verse he said has propelled him through life, Proverbs 22:1, “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold.”

- Jennifer Brett/The Buzz/jbrett@ajc.com

2 comments Add your comment

Genuine

March 17th, 2011
8:12 am

By far one of the most generous, caring and family oriented man in the business world today. No need to be flashy or brag. Just an all around genuine person and it shows. Read his latest book. A true success story done the right way. Congratulations!

Idella Skaggs

March 17th, 2011
4:44 pm

Absoltely true of Truett Cathy! If every business owner ran their business like Truett does, they could be blessed with a successful business/life by God as well! Truett is an humble man and a true example of a Christian to his family, our church, and others he meets. He is also a man of Christian humor! He has also been richly blessed with Jeannette as his wife! God bless!