Mitzi Perdue: Frank’s greatest gift to us

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Tony Weeg Photos

Those of us who’ve devoted big parts of our professional careers watching and reporting on Frank Perdue will never forget the first time we encountered Mary Henderson Ayala.

Mitzi Ayala burst on the Salisbury scene in spring 1988. Full of charm and energy, she dove head-first into the community. Frank’s “new girlfriend” became almost immediately Frank’s “new fiance” and then, even more quickly, Frank’s new wife.

Her father was a founder of the Sheraton Hotels chain. She was globally astute, a world traveler, a linguist, environmental advocate, a writer and newspaper columnist.

She had university degrees from Harvard and George Washington. She was a cousin to Malcolm Forbes and purported to be among the largest rice growers in California, with thousands of acres under till.

As Salisbury’s No. 1 local celebrity, Frank’s marriage history was well known. His first wife and the mother of his four children, Madeline Godfrey Perdue, was a community icon.

In 1988, Frank was freshly divorced from his second wife, who was also his New York City investment banker. That marriage had lasted what seemed to be about 12 minutes (it was three years, but Kathleen M. Markey was rarely if ever seen in Salisbury).

And then came Mitzi.

Everyone who met Mitzi Perdue came away wowed. She was sincere, interesting — fun. When the locals would (rudely) wonder aloud why this dynamic 47-year-old sophisticate would hitch herself to a 68-year-old Eastern Shore businessman known for working 20-hour days, Frank would usually counter: “Mitzi is smarter and has more money than me” — making clear that Mitzi, not he, was the “catch.”

Their affection in public was apparent. They truly seemed to complement one another, Mitzi took up residence in Salisbury, and during their 18-year marriage the couple hosted for dinner everyone of the company’s local employees at the Perdue’s Woodland Road home.

Mitzi FrankWhen Frank handed the company reins to his son Jim in 1990, Mitzi and Frank traveled, increased their philanthropy and immersed themselves deeply into local nonprofit groups and ambitious endeavors.

Whether it was building Arthur W. Perdue Stadium, or the Perdue Business School at Salisbury University, or launching “Healthy U” to help change our infamously unhealthy lifestyles.

Frank died in 2005; one can only wonder what his last years would have been like if there had been no Mitzi. People who knew him best have always said they never saw him happier than he was in his final two decades.

In her autobiography, “I Didn’t Bargain For This,” she wrote:

“Frank and I were quite different people, but it all seemed to work wonderfully. I think it somehow delighted him that I was utterly different from his work environment.

Professionally, he was the uber alpha male with a lot of authority and power. With me, it was whimsical, nutty, illogical, and I hope fun.”

Mitzi recently authored a new book about Frank, “Tough Man, Tender Chicken — Business And Life Lessons From Frank Perdue.” It offers a business look at the Shore’s favorite son and dispenses some of the life lessons that he applied to his incredibly successful enterprise.

As always, whenever Mitzi writes about Frank, the content is utterly compelling, instructional and inspirational.

Q. Frank will have been gone 10 years ago in March. What has that very personal transition been like?

A. In a word, horrible.

Today, I have so much sympathy for people who are widowed. It also  made me realize, as never before, how important it is to write condolence letters, and  I know firsthand how much those letters mean.

Q. What prompted you to write “Tough Man, Tender Chicken — Business And Life Lessons From Frank Perdue?”

A. The answer to that is an example of something that’s proven true my entire life: When one door slams shut, another, better one bursts open.

I had made a book proposal to Harper Collins to write about something dear to my heart — soldiers serving overseas and their families at home. I got a contract to write “Seven Who Served,”  but even though I had been invited to visit the (Salisbury based) 115th Military Police Battalion in Forward Operating Base Walton in Afghanistan, I was never permitted to go.

That meant I couldn’t fulfill my contract

I was disappointed, but then the people at Harper Collins told me that Frank’s story was timeless and that I should write about him instead

I loved the idea and began spending 15-hour days interviewing 134 different people, and then writing the book. I think the book is at least something of a success because it’s gotten as high as No. 22 on Amazon’s list of business biographies.

And it might go even higher because I just got an invitation to be on the FOX Business Network with David Asman.

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Q. Tell us about when you first met Frank Perdue.

A. When I first met Frank it was at a party in Washington, DC. I was a rice grower in California at the time and we decided pretty quickly that chicken and rice go well together.

Things went pretty quickly because when we actually married, I had known him in person six weeks and three days.

However, for many months before we married, while I was still living in California, we’d talk on the phone for an hour or two every night

I think you can learn a lot about a person from long phone conversations, and I felt by the time we married that it was as if I had known him all my life.

Q. Frank often told people you were a lot smarter than him.

A. If a paper airplane is more powerful than a rocket ship to the moon, than I am smarter than Frank.

I thought his brilliance was incandescent

I kind of tried to hide from him what I’m about to say, but my usual reaction to a lot of what he said was pure and simple awe. He had amazing insight, and I can think of times when I was certain that he had to be wrong about something — and then the facts would prove him right.

He was genius.

Q. You two had a lot of obvious affection. He seemed to make you laugh.

A. I used to feel that at home, I was always walking around with a smile on my face because I simply knew that he was shortly going to say something that was either amusing, funny, or fall-on-the-floor-clutching-your-sides-with-laughter hilarious.

As an example of how he could come up with funny things off the top of his head, do you remember Imelda Marcos from the Philippines and the several thousand pairs of shoes that were discovered in her closet?

Q. Yes, that was something of an amusing scandal in the 1980s.

A. Well, one day around the time that Mrs. Marcos’ shoe collection was in the news, Frank and I were having lunch with our great friends Shirley and Brice Phillips from Phillips Crab Houses.

Shirley was admitting that it made her happy to buy new shoes

Frank looked right at her, and with a comedian’s timing said, “I understand … Mrs. Philippines!”

Who but Frank would tie together the idea of shoes and the name Phillips, and the country that Imelda Marcos came from, the Philippines!

But that kind of humor was typical of him. It makes me laugh even now to think of it.

Q. Because you cared so much about Frank, what do you say to those who might suggest that you’re too biased to write a book about your husband?

A. The answer to that is easy: Guilty!

However, I did make an effort to include people who had negative views of Frank. I did this on the grounds that it would be boring to read only the favorable side, and further, it wouldn’t be fair to Frank to leave out some of the factors that both made him a success but also made him a tough man.

One of the biggest negatives was in the realm of management. Frank never got that chain of command is important. His unwillingness to follow this management principle drove some people nuts, and I talk about it freely.

I also talk about how I think he was divinely lucky to have a son (Perdue Chairman Jim Perdue) with a different approach to management.

It takes one kind of personality to start a very large company, and a very different kind of personality to keep it going successfully.

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Q. I love quotes, and I especially loved the quotes from Frank included in your book. Some I’d heard, most I hadn’t. They’re pretty amazing. How did you compile those?

A. Although I’ve described myself as a rice grower, I was in addition, a columnist working for the Capitol News Service when we met. Being a writer, I noticed that, amazingly, almost everything Frank said was either wise, insightful, or inspirational.

I quickly — as in starting with the first date — began recording in my diary things he said, and I continued doing that pretty much during our entire marriage.

That meant that over the years, I had a lot of information to work with.

Q. People are fascinated by you, Mitzi, because you are so inspirational. Where does that energy come from?

A. The answer to that is so darn simple: I eat lots of chicken!

Q. What’s the most important thing you learned from Frank?

A. Can I answer that by talking instead about what I should have learned from Frank?

It’s something I admired endlessly about him, but I’m not able to achieve it.

Frank had so much integrity that he was almost immune to flattery. There’s a quote from Mother Theresa, that I thought applied to him: “If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.”

Frank was at heart a humble person. He didn’t live in a pretentious house, he flew economy class, and he treated everyone with the same sincerity and respect, whether a worker on the line or the president of the United States.

He didn’t show off and he didn’t need flattery. I thought it was awesome that someone with so much to boast about never did.

Q. Your commitment to the Eastern Shore and Salisbury is obvious. How did you come to embrace this community.

A. I  had always felt like a nomad, but the day I came here, I felt I had come home.

In fact, the day I arrived here, I unexpectedly had the best welcome possible.  I had driven from Washington, and stopped by a convenience store on the outskirts of Salisbury to buy a map.  I opened the map and was struggling to find the address on it when a young couple came up to me and asked if they could help.

I pointed to where I needed to go and they said, “It’s a little complicated,” (which it was), and then added, “Why don’t you just follow us?”

We got in our cars and I followed them the several miles to Frank’s home, and once there, I expected to thank them but instead, the driver put his hand out the window, gave me a wave, and drove off.

I’ve always wondered who those kind people were.

But it sure made for a wonderful introduction to the community! And the funny thing is, I see that kind of neighborliness and friendliness all the time.

How could anyone not love a community like this? It’s the only place I could feel “home.”

Q&A Jump 2

Q. How can people get your book, “Tough Man, Tender Chicken?”

A. It’s available on Amazon for $17.80, or if someone wants the book autographed or in quantity, its available at FrankPerdueBook.com.

Five books from that website are $16 each, including postage. I hope readers will find it inspirational.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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