By Curt Yeomans
The Chick-fil-A corporation's first official scholarship program was started in 1973, but its roots can be traced back to 1955, to a mayonnaise jar that sat next to the cash registers on the counter at the Forest Park Dwarf House restaurant.
The jar was labeled "Eddie's Morris Brown College Fund."
The mayonnaise jar was there to help one of the restaurant's cooks raise enough money to attend college. Patrons donated spare cash during the summer of 1955 to help "Eddie" raise money to pay for college.
At the end of that summer, "Eddie" counted the donations and found he only had enough money to pay for half of his tuition. That's when Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy, who personally oversaw operations at the store, wrote a check to pay for the rest of the tuition.
"Eddie" is Eddie J. White, who graduated from Morris Brown with a pre-medicine degree four years later. He eventually got a second degree, in education, from Atlanta University. He then went on to work for Clayton County Public Schools for 35 years, and to serve on the county's school board for three-and-a-half years.
"I'm not sure where I'd be if he hadn't helped me," said White, 72, on Monday. "All I've accomplished in my life is because of Truett Cathy."
On Monday, Chick-fil-A officials gathered at the Chick-fil-A "Climb with Care and Confidence" statue across from Woodruff Park in Atlanta, to celebrate the awarding of the 25,000th leadership scholarship, to Jamie Dyche, an 18-year-old Chick-fil-A employee from Bossier City, La.
Dyche is a freshman at Centenary College, located in Shreveport, La., where classes also began on Monday. She received a $1,000 scholarship from the restaurant chain.
The first, formal Chick-fil-A scholarships were presented in 1973, under the "Team Member Scholarship Program" name, as a way to encourage restaurant employees to pursue higher education, according to a brief, written history provided to the media on Monday.
In 1996, the Team Member Scholarship Program was replaced by the Chick-fil-A Leadership Scholarship Program," which requires employees to be active in their schools and communities as well as show academic success. Over the last 36 years, Chick-fil-A has given away $25 million in scholarships to restaurant employees, company officials report.
"We know $1,000 does not go very far, but it sure helps to get started," Truett Cathy said. During the ceremony, Cathy quoted the "Golden Rule" from the Bible, and told young people "when you get to the top of the mountain, keep on climbing."
Later in the ceremony, the 88-year-old Chick-fil-A founder unveiled a plaque that will be added to the "Climb with Care and Confidence" statue to commemorate the 25,000th scholarship.
The plaque includes a nod to Eddie White, with a depiction of a hand dropping a coin into a jar. Under the image are the words "started in 1955 at Truett Cathy's Dwarf House restaurant with a mayonnaise jar labeled 'Eddie's Morris Brown College Fund.' "
White participated in the ceremony by giving the benediction. Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy, Truett's son, presented glass plaques to White and Dyche. Afterward, attendees received commemorative jelly jars bearing the Chick-fil-A logo.
After White completed his college education, he worked his way up the ranks in Clayton County Public Schools, beginning as a classroom teacher in 1961, and eventually becoming the school system's assistant superintendent for personnel, staff and pupil services, until his retirement in 1996. He returned to education in 2004 when he was elected to serve on the Clayton County Board of Education. In the years since Truett Cathy helped White pay for his first year at Morris Brown College, the two men have remained friends.
To this day, White lists Cathy as one of his references on his job resume. In his 1989 book "It's Easier to Succeed Than to Fail," Cathy recounted the story of how he helped White get to Morris Brown. The educator, then the principal at Northcutt Elementary School, contributed a brief testimonial for the book as well.
"He has been not only an employer of mine, but a dear friend to me, and to my family as well," White said on Monday. "He has exhibited those characteristics that we admire in an individual. He is a real giver, and he has not changed from when I first knew him."
In April 2008, White was considering resigning from the school board while the board was embroiled in an accreditation crisis. At the time, there was a public outcry for all school board members to resign, but Cathy publicly defended White.
In a letter Cathy wrote to the Clayton News Daily at the time, he called White the "last green leaf on a dying tree" and said it would be "a great tragedy to the community," if the public did not encourage the veteran educator to stay in office. By the end of that month, however, White had resigned from the board.
When asked on Monday about his support of White during the accreditation crisis, Truett said he will stand behind White "in anything he does," and "if he ran for president of the United States, I'd vote for him."