Frank Perdue: 1920-2005
It was his folksy delivery of the words "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken" that made the line a national catchphrase and helped Perdue (who suffered from Parkinson's disease but died after a brief illness on March 31 at 84) turn his business into America's third-largest poultry producer. But for Perdue, the only child of Pearl, a homemaker, and Arthur, an egg farmer, being a poultry potentate was not the future he saw as a teen in Salisbury, Md. "One thing I didn't want to be was a chicken farmer," he told PEOPLE in 1982.
After high school he went to teacher's college, where he joined the baseball team so he could test out his real dream: becoming a professional athlete. Two years of mostly warming the bench convinced him that raising eggs might not be so bad. Perdue returned to the farm and soon he and his father decided that selling chickens would be more profitable. Last year the company's sales totaled $2.8 billion.
Though Perdue, who married three times and had four children and two stepchildren, relinquished control of the company in 1991 to his son Jim, he found it hard to completely let go, even as his health was failing. "He'd been going to the office every day but for the last six weeks," says close friend and former Perdue Farms CEO Don Mabe. "Frank didn't play golf. Frank didn't have a yacht. Frank liked his business."