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Returning to his roots:After stint in Alabama, University of Akron's Wayne College's Tom Wilke prefe

Katherine Ryder Published: June 1, 2011 10:37 AM

Most people like fast food because they can get in, get out and get back to their lives without thinking twice.

For Tom Wilke, the fast food industry hasn't been a drive-thru experience.

Wilke started as a crew member at Burger Chef when he was 15 years old. In the nine years he worked for the company, Wilke got a lot more than discounted burgers and fries.

He was promoted to manager shortly after graduating from high school and also met his wife, Judy, there in 1979.

Recognizing Burger Chef was on the decline, Wilke left the company to join Taco Bell corporate as an assistant manager in 1981.

The move paid off because Taco Bell was expanding and provided him with ample opportunity for advancement.

When he left Taco Bell 23 years later, he was the senior region coach, placing him in charge of 155 company-owned restaurants and 455 franchise-owned restaurants in the northeastern part of the United States.

While he was there, Wilke took advantage of the opportunity to go back to school.

By taking almost exclusively night classes, Wilke obtained his undergraduate degree in accounting from the University of Akron and a Master of Business Administration degree from Kent State University in less than eight years.

The Northeast Ohio native grew up outside of Akron and has stayed close to home for most of his life, however, he did have a brief stint of living in the deep South when he moved to Birmingham, Ala., to become the vice president of operations Tacala (Tacos of Alabama), Taco Bell's largest franchisee.

Wilke also was a partner for the group that owned 170 restaurants in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.

The four years while he was there brought several new challenges. His oldest daughter, Jessica, already had graduated from high school and was off to college, but his youngest daughter, Laura, still needed to complete high school.

Since he and his wife didn't want to move her away from Stow, and all of her friends, Wilke went to live in Alabama by himself while his wife and daughter stayed home.

Wilke also quickly discovered he was not a fan of the weather in the South either.

"I like to tell people up here and most of them don't believe me but the summers in Birmingham are more miserable than the winters in Northeast Ohio as far as I'm concerned," he said.

It was an easy decision for him to make when he was offered a buy-out from the partnership and could return to his family in Ohio.

Wilke and his wife sold their home in Stow and moved in permanently to what had been their vacation home at Lake Buckhorn.

"Once the kids were out of the house, Judy and I really loved the area here so much that we wanted to move here full time," Wilke said. "We really love Holmes County, love Millersburg and Lake Buckhorn is a beautiful place to live."

After taking a year-and-a-half off from working, Wilke decided to get back into the work force.

Knowing he wanted a change from his fast food past, he now is working two jobs.

Wilke is a part-time instructor for the University of Akron's Wayne College and hopes to start teaching at least one class per semester at Stark State Technical College. He teaches accounting courses at both institutions.

The job he picked up in September 2009 was becoming the downtown manager for Historic Downtown Millersburg. In working with promotions coordinator Tara McCulloch, Wilke has been able to make major strides to help develop the downtown district.

HDM was certified by Heritage Ohio as a National Main Street Community for 2011 and events such as the Girls' Night Out have been successful. This year, GNO had an attendance of more than 1,200.

Despite the success, Wilke still has one more goal he wants to achieve.

He hopes to be able to apply for a Tier Two Downtown Building and Streetscape Revitalization grant that would bring in $400,000 to help bring buildings up to code and improve their facades.

In order to obtain the grant, the community must be able to provide a one to one investment ratio, which is where the organization is coming up short.

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