Forkner was soldier, lawyer, top golfer and helped start Waffle House

1:07 p.m Tuesday, May 2, 2017 Local
In this 2005 photo, Waffle House founders Joe Rogers Sr., left, and Thomas Francis Forkner Sr. pose in front of a restaurant in Norcross. Forkner, who jumped from real estate to the restaurant business when he co-founded Waffle House in the 1950s, has died weeks after the death of his business partner who helped him create the famous Southern diner chain. (AP Photo/Ric Feld, File)

Thomas Forkner, co-founder of the iconic Waffle House roadside restaurant chain, died April 26, within weeks of the deaths of his beloved wife of more than 70 years and his longtime business partner.

He was 98.

Forkner, who was first an attorney, served in World War II and became a real estate broker, then paired with Joe Rogers Sr. to start the hugely successful chain after selling Rogers a home in Avondale Estates in 1949. Late in life, he also became one of the top senior golfers in Georgia.

Forkner and Rogers opened about 400 restaurants before easing themselves out of the business in the 1970s. But they continued working as company goodwill ambassadors for years as Waffle House grew to 1,800-plus restaurants in 25 states. Forkner was still going regularly to his office at Waffle House’s Norcross headquarters until just a few weeks ago, a company spokesman said.

Rogers, 97, died March 3. Forkner’s wife, the former Martha Jean Bishop, preceded him in death by about seven weeks.

"He was a great dad, but, most of all, a great husband," said Tom Forkner Jr. "She (his mom) was always No. 1. 

After his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and could no longer live at home, the elder Forkner moved with her into the memory care unit of the assisted living home where he died. 

"He sold everything he had and the house and never looked back," Tom Forkner Jr. said. 

"All he cared about was her and taking care of her," he said. "That was a great example to the kids." 

Forkner was born in the small Middle Georgia town of Hawkinsville and grew up in the area of DeKalb County that later became Avondale Estates.

His father, Benjamin Forkner, was the general superintendent of the original construction of Avondale and later launched Forkner Realty. Thomas Forkner received degrees from Young Harris College and John Marshall Law School and started a law practice at age 23. But his career was put on hold after he was drafted into service in World War II in 1941.

Forkner met his future wife while an Army intelligence officer and security officer for The Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tenn., during World War II. He considered that “the luckiest day of his life,” family and friends said.

The couple married after a 90-day courtship and celebrated 71 years together on Sept. 20, 2016.

“She clearly was the love of his life,” said Darryl Harris, executive director of the Georgia Senior Golfers Association, an organization Forkner co-founded in 1968. “It was easy to see why he would have been so smitten. She was a lovely, lovely lady.”

After the war, the Forkners returned to Georgia, where he began a long and successful real estate career. He served as the president of the DeKalb County Board of Realtors and was appointed to handle the right-of-way and land acquisition for interstates that ran through the county —- including I-85, I-20, I-285 and the Stone Mountain Freeway.

His sale of a home to the late Joe W. Rogers Sr. in 1949 began a long friendship and business relationship.

“Tom and my father had a handshake deal, and their partnership and friendship continued for more than 60 years,” said Joe Rogers Jr., Waffle House chairman. “Tom and Joe were great partners – Tom working the real estate side of the business and my father operating the restaurants.”

Rogers was working for the Toddle House, a national restaurant chain, when the two decided to create a restaurant that served quality food at a great value, with concern for both customers and staff.

The first Waffle House opened on Labor Day 1955 in Avondale Estates, with its “yellow sign” and trademark 24-hour-a-day service.

Waffle House restaurants are so reliably open that several years ago they spawned what’s known as the “Waffle House Index,” a measure of the severity of natural disasters. The index is green when Waffle House is open with a full menu. It’s yellow when the restaurant is open with a reduced menu. And it flashes red when a Waffle House closes at the threat of significant property damage.

Joe Rogers Jr. said Forkner “will be remembered as a man of honesty and integrity.

Forkner became a successful later-life golfer – winning the state Seniors Championship four times - in 1968, 1969, 1982 and 1986 - and the International Seniors Championship twice - in 1974 and 1980. He was inducted into the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame in 2007.

Darryl Harris of the association played a few rounds of golf with Forkner when the Waffle House co-founder was in his 80s and 90s.

“It was just amazing to watch,” Harris said. “He showed me how a game could be played.”

Forkner’s attention to detail showed through on the greens. He wasn’t above stopping the golf cart between holes to collect an abandoned golf ball or even a coin he spotted, he said.

“He said: ‘Never pass up an opportunity,” Harris said.

Forkner took great care of himself physically, which could account for his long and active life, Harris said.

“He was into fitness before fitness was cool,” running and regularly working out in a basement gym in his home, he said.

Forkner, though clearly wealthy, never showed it, he said.

“You didn’t know he was a business magnate,” Harris said. “He was just one of the guys and just a wonderful, wonderful Southern gentleman.”

The younger Forkner said his father was always smiling and always positive. 

He "let nothing get him down." 

"His saying was: 'Today is a good day to have a good day."

Forkner’s survivors include his children, Marti Forkner-Vernon, Allison Forkner and Tom Forkner Jr.; several grandchildren and great grandchildren. A celebration of life was Sunday at Norcross First United Methodist Church.

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