Some people are legendary because of what they have done, but others and perhaps the most important ones, are legendary because of who they are.
Grace Dobson, also known as Lady Grace, is the famous face behind the Whataburger empire. While her husband, Harmon Dobson, was the one who launched the first Whataburger, it was Lady Grace who clung tightly to her husband’s legacy through terrible trials and tragedies. When everyone told Grace to just let go, the love of her husband and the desire to honor a promise propelled her forward into uncharted territory as she fought to keep the Whataburger legacy alive. Today, Whataburger is a billion-dollar industry, all because of the efforts of Whataburger’s saving Grace.
Born in 1913 in Wayne, Oklahoma, Harmon Dobson was raised in the rural farming community of Cushman, Arkansas. Growing up during the onset of the Great Depression, the Dobson family had few resources, but plenty of food at a time when food meant everything. Harmon’s parents, Hugh and Ethel, raised cattle and fed the family fresh beef, milk, and home-grown vegetables. Perhaps the Depression stuck with young Harmon because food was important to him long after tough economic times had ended.
Harmon Dobson was sixteen years old on Black Friday, but this first Black Friday was no shopping extravaganza: it marked the most devastating stock market crash in United States history. This event coincided with the mass unemployment and hysteria that lasted throughout the following decade. What disappointed Harmon most about this era was the news that although he was accepted to the University of Missouri to study journalism, he would never graduate. Shortly after arriving on campus, Harmon was called home to help with a family crisis.
Once it was averted, Harmon began searching for a new path to success. He took jobs at the county fair and as an apprentice iron worker. Following that, he worked at the New York Shipbuilding Company, which, at the time, was the world’s largest boat-builder for the U.S. Navy. During this time he traveled to North Africa where he helped build a U.S. Navy base and worked on airplane hangars, radio towers, tanks, and whatever else the Navy needed. Later, he went to Egypt and worked on the Suez Canal. Following that, the adventurous Dobson traveled to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf to help build a refinery. However, everything changed when Dobson was put in charge of the refinery’s mess hall, and it was here that his education in large-scale food service began.
“Harmon was a stickler for cleanliness and very detailoriented,” his sister LenaRae explained to biographer Greg Woolridge. “He was not afraid to tell people if they did not meet his standards.”
However, after only four months, Dobson grew restless and returned to the U.S. By August of that year, he returned home. The war was over, and his adventure had ended. At first, Harmon was content to help his parents on the farm, but his wanderlust eventually returned, calling him elsewhere.
Although he missed college, Harmon was determined to make his way in the world. An opportunity arose when Harmon discovered a niche in the auto industry. Because of World War II, auto manufacturing plants had been repurposed to produce wartime products. Since post-war production had not yet returned, the U.S. had a great need for autos, particularly in rural areas.
Dobson filled that need by buying used autos from urban areas like Detroit, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., and selling them back in Batesville for huge profits. In a short time, Dobson had an impressive business. By the end of 1936, he had a net worth of $35,000. Following his success, Dobson began dabbling in oil and purchased a small well in Mountain Home, Arkansas. This venture led him to his destiny in the Lone Star State.
After hearing from a friend in Houston that Texas was teeming with both cars and oil, Dobson, whose business ventures now had him traveling halfway across the U.S., purchased a private plane and learned to fly it. He flew to Texas to scout out the oil and auto possibilities in places like Witchita Falls, Dallas, and Houston. However, before he found his landing place, he took a detour to Africa where he partnered with friend Jimmy
Angel, who insisted that there was a lucrative diamond business there. Angel was a bit more adventurous than Dobson, though both crashed several times in Africa while mining for diamonds. Angel crashed fifteen times before meeting his demise, but it only took Dobson four wrecks to wake up and realize the diamond business might prove fatal.
By 1949, Dobson was done with diamonds and began searching for a safe place to land. After experiencing numerous losses that caused him to lose over $5,000, Dobson returned to the U.S.
Dobson began by doing dozens of quick auto deals before returning to Texas to scout for oil. However, the oil business would prove to be about as profitable for Dobson as the diamond business. Looking for a more secure venture, Dobson met and partnered with Paul Burton. He purchased a frozen custard stand called Dairy King in Big Spring, Texas, and ran it for a few weeks to learn the business. However, Dobson was already looking to move on to bigger ventures. He felt like the burgers at Dairy King were too small and wanted to build a really big burger, calling it the Whataburger.
A Bigger Better Burger
Dobson and Burton scouted out several locations for their big burger venture before settling on Corpus Christi. On August 8, 1950, the first Whataburger opened at 2609 Ayers Street. Before the Whataburger, the typical burger was a White Castle slider, a two-ounce beef patty on a 2½-inch bun. The larger burgers that could be found back in the 1950s were served on 4-inch buns. The Whataburger, however, was a whopping quarter pound of fresh grilled beef loaded with fresh vegetables and served on a 5-inch bun, and in 1950 there was nothing like it.
Always thinking bigger, the moment Whataburger began, Dobson and Burton were already seeking a possible second location in Houston. By the end of 1950, Dobson had quit both the oil and auto industries and made Whataburger his sole venture. By 1951, Dobson was an official Texan. However, early on Burton and Dobson found that their differing business philosophies were undeniable. Whataburger was a burgeoning business, but profits were minimal. Dobson wanted to increase the price of a burger
from 25 to 30 cents. Burton wanted to cut back on the product, convinced that customers would not pay that much.
Unwilling to compromise, Dobson offered Burton the keys to his yellow Plymouth convertible and franchise rights to all of San Antonio in exchange for the business. The price of burgers was raised to 30 cents, and to Burton’s chagrin, customers did not mind. In 1953 , Joe Andrews received the first Whataburger franchise, and business was booming.
However, Dobson found success to be lonely.
A Graceful Entrance and a Sad Departure
Dobson was a notorious bachelor, but he had always liked a beautiful young widow he met at the C.I.T. Credit Corporation in Batesville during his auto dealing years. Grace Williamson and her 5-year-old son, Tom, rented a home owned by Dobson’s brother Coy. Unfortunately, Coy was protective of Grace and had warned her about dating his unsettled, gallivanting brother.
In February 1955, Coy passed away, and Dobson and Grace turned to each other for comfort. A few weeks after the funeral, Grace visited Dobson in Corpus Christi, and they had their first date at Whataburger. By March 5, the couple was married. In 1956 and 1957, respectively, they had a daughter named Mary Lynne and a son named Hugh Carlton. Their family complete, the Dobsons embarked on the happy, golden age of Whataburger.
By the mid-‘60s, there were over 40 stores in fifteen Texas cities and four states. Whataburger was becoming what Dobson always knew it could, and his family was happy and successful.
The prosperity lasted until 1967 when Dobson and his friend Gene Crane were killed in a plane crash in La Porte, where they had stopped to refuel. Shocked and saddened, the Whataburger family gathered around Lady Grace to comfort her and her three children in the wake of the tragedy. Everyone expected Grace, now twice widowed, to crumble, and they encouraged her to sell Whataburger. Unflinching, she steadfastly refused. She was infuriated that people were telling her to sell off her husband’s dream and just enjoy the money. “That’s what made me mad, made me want to fight,” Grace told biographers.
The pragmatic Lady Grace rolled up her sleeves and got to work, teaching her children the family business along the way. Proving everyone wrong, Grace lived her entire life in the same house that her husband bought her. She lived simply and seldom spent the Whataburger money, aside from the many charities to which she contributed.
A Benevolent Bequest
From the very start, Lady Grace saw to it that Whataburger gave back to the community. After all, kindness, compassion, and quality were principles Harmon and Grace worked to instill in their employees. To this day, giving is a huge part of the Whataburger dynasty. In 2001, the Whataburger Family Foundation officially began, though the charitable efforts had been ongoing since day one. In 2017 alone, Whataburger partnered with over 600 charities across its ten-state service area, donating over $5 million. Charities like cancer research, children’s education, child abuse prevention, and hunger are still dear to the company’s heart.
During Hurricane Harvey, Whataburger rallied around the Corpus Christi community and quickly began rebuilding and fundraising efforts. They have also hosted “Wow” fund-raising events where they combine fun community activities with charitable giving. They have jalapeño eating contests, giveaways, and appearances from the company mascot, Whataguy.
In addition to a legacy of giving, Lady Grace made sure to instill her children with hard work and Whataburger values. In the early years, Grace’s oldest son, Tom, enjoyed helping Harmon make the root beer at Whataburger. The children grew up working in the restaurants and are still a part of what makes Whataburger great today. Tom officially took over Whataburger in 1993 and is still company chairman today. Mary Lynne and Hugh are both members of the board of directors. All three work hard to ensure that Whataburger never strays from their father’s original concept, which was to serve hungry people great food in a clean and friendly environment. Even the grandchildren work at Whataburger and attend company meetings.
Today Whataburger has over 800 stores in ten states serving up Harmon Dobson’s original Whataburger. However, over the years, Whataburger has become a legend in its own right. In fact, people love representing Whataburger so much, they rush out to get the latest Whataburger swag: from Whataburger sunglasses to Whataburger sneakers, t-shirts, sweaters, and hats. There is even a Whataburger race car and a Whataburger field in Corpus Christi that hosts a minor league baseball team. One year, 24 weddings were held at a Dallas Whataburger. Today, Whataburger is a big part of Texas culture, and families all over the Lone Star State can say thank you to Harmon Dobson for helping them to celebrate some of the best moments of their lives.