More than 2,000 turn out to pay tribute to Frank Perdue

Poultry industry innovator and pitchman is mourned

April 07, 2005|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY - More than 2,000 people - friends, farmers, family and dignitaries of all sorts - turned out yesterday to pay tribute to Franklin Parsons Perdue, who worked as a child on his father's Eastern Shore egg farm, then achieved fame and fortune as a down-home pitchman for what became a huge poultry business.

Perdue, 84, who died Friday at his home near here, was hailed as an industry innovator who cultivated markets up and down the Atlantic Coast with dozens of comical television commercials. He built 85-year-old Perdue Farms into the nation's third-largest poultry processor, with 19,000 employees the company calls "associates" and 7,500 contract chicken growers.

Among those attending the service at Emmanuel Wesleyan Church, which was chosen because of its 2,500-seat sanctuary, were Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley, a farmer and longtime neighbor of the Perdue family.

"Frank wasn't a man who waited for opportunities, he was a man who created opportunities," said Riley, who was a school bus driver for Perdue's children. "His was the total success story of a humble man."

Annie Harmon, 66, who retired after 15 years working the poultry line at Perdue's Salisbury processing plant, joined hundreds who visited the church Tuesday night and yesterday for a public viewing. "I never really met him, not for any conversations. But I just felt like I had to come here to pay my respects," Harmon said. "I think he was a fair man."

Computer technician Sandy Sonenti, who has worked at the company for seven years, took her lunch hour with co-workers to attend the viewing. She said she will remember Perdue and his wife, Mitzi, for their support of the local United Way campaign, where she volunteers. But she did not linger at the church yesterday. "We figured Frank would probably rather have us back at work than at a funeral," Sonenti said.

Perdue's son, Jim, who took over the business in 1991, delivered a eulogy praising his father for his vision, dedication and hard work. The elder Perdue, known for his attention to detail and long hours, also had the faith and courage to hand over the reins of the company, allowing a new generation to continue expanding, the son said.

In retirement, Jim Perdue said, his father spent more time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren (whom he referred to as "G4s and G5s," meaning fourth and fifth generation), fostering closer ties among them by paying for elaborate family vacations each year for 25 or more relatives.

The funeral procession, escorted by mounted officers from the Salisbury Police Department's equestrian unit, drove past the Perdue homestead, adjacent to Perdue's corporate headquarters, before arriving at the gravesite.

The Rev. Oren Perdue, Frank Perdue's second cousin and pastor of Salisbury Baptist Temple, preached at yesterday's service. His church is across the street from the Arthur W. Perdue Stadium, home of the minor league Delmarva Shorebirds.

Frank Perdue, a lifelong baseball fan, financed much of the stadium and named it after his father in 1996.

"Frank was about 15 years older than I am, but I remember him and his father when they were still raising chickens and growing crops where the stadium is now," said Oren Perdue. "Frank was always a straight shooter, no matter who you were. He never forgot where he came from."

Perdue was buried in a family plot next to his father in the small town of Parsonsburg. Later, hundreds of mourners were invited to the nearby Wicomico Youth and Civic Center for a reception with family members.

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