Frank Perdue – chicken ‘kingpin’ dies

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 5, 2005

SALISBURY, Md. – The man responsible for putting thousands to work in the Roanoke-Chowan area and giving local farmers an opportunity to find alternative income has died.

Frank Parsons Perdue, the man responsible for making Perdue chickens a household name, succumbed March 31 in his Salisbury, Maryland home following a short illness. He was 84.

&uot;Frank Perdue has made a major impact on this area,&uot; said Jim Young, Human Resources Director at the Perdue Farms processing plant near Lewiston-Woodville. &uot;From his position as a businessman to the fact that he and this company have always prided themselves on the fact of being a good corporate partner within the community, Mr. Perdue leaves a lasting legacy.&uot;

Young said no entity was too small or too large to catch Perdue’s attention.

&uot;Under his direction, we have made donations to fire departments and rescue squads, all the way up to entire school districts,&uot; he noted.

While the local communities have prospered due to Perdue’s generosity, Young said the company employees were never forgotten.

&uot;Back during Hurricane Floyd, we saw a lot of our associates lose everything in that storm,&uot; Young recalled. &uot;Out of his own pocket, not the company’s, he gave each of them a check for $1,000. That was never made public until now because Mr. Perdue was such a humble man.&uot;

Young concluded by saying, &uot;The legacy he leaves is that this company will continue to grow. That’s all he ever wanted. It grew under his watchful eye, just as it will under his son’s.&uot;

The roots of the business also extended into the local education community. Perdue Farms was a big benefactor of Bertie County Public Schools – once donating $1 million for the betterment of education in the county.

Perdue Farms has made a huge economic impact on the Roanoke-Chowan area. Its Lewiston-Woodville processing plant is one of the largest of its kind, employing 2,300 workers as well as providing job opportunities for local trucking firms.

The company also owns and operates a feed mill/truck garage in Cofield and a hatchery between Murfreesboro and Conway in Northampton County. Those workers are counted among the processing plant employees.

The landscape of the Roanoke-Chowan area is dotted with Perdue chicken houses from where those trademark big-breasted birds are a part of the nearly 400,000 chickens processed daily at the Lewiston plant.

Within an 80-mile of the Lewiston plant, 350 producers, most with more than one chicken house, provide the birds that eventually wind up on dinner tables up and down the East Coast.

Perdue, a hard-working businessman, was credited with revolutionizing the poultry industry by taking chickens from the rural backroads to a national media campaign. His hands-on marketing style allowed him an opportunity to become the company’s upfront man. He became a household name by appearing in television commercials where his motto became, &uot;It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.&uot;

Despite his age, Perdue remained active in his company, serving as chairman of the executive committee of the board of Perdue Farms Inc. at the time of his death. His son, Jim, took over as chairman of the company in 1991.

Taking over the reigns of the budding company in 1952, Perdue transformed what was then the family’s backyard egg business into the nation’s fourth-largest integrated food processor.

Perdue was born in 1920 in Salisbury, Maryland. His father, Arthur, quit his railroad job and went in business with his wife, Pearl. The couple invested $5 to purchase 50 Leghorn chickens. The venture proved successful, sustaining the family through the Great Depression.

In addition to his wife, Mitzi, and son, Jim, Perdue is survived by three other children, two stepchildren and 12 grandchildren.