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Thursday, March 31, 2011

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Mitzi Perdue, Author, Philanthropist, Dancing Queen and Fabulous Manhattanite

My life has been tremendously influenced by two phrases that I learned at my mother’s knee:“It’s the givers of the world who are the happiest,” and life was about “Putting back in the bucket.”

My father, Ernest Henderson, founded the Sheraton Hotel chain, so I was born to a life of privilege. However, because of this early training about giving back, I determined that my life would be about service. I was also influenced by a motto I made up: “Success is measured not by what you can get, but by what you can give.” To be able to give back, I would try for the best education I could, and most of my waking hours as a child were spent trying to get good grades so I could get into Harvard.

After Harvard, I began a career in communications, writing a syndicated column on the environment, first for Capitol News in California and then for Scripps Howard, nationally. At it’s peak, “The Environment and You” went to 420 newspapers, and the total number of columns was more than 1100. The articles focused mainly on how individuals could protect the environment, but they also encouraged students to study science, so they could play a role in saving the planet. Science teachers told me they often used my columns in their classes.

I also wrote more than 250 columns on charities for my local paper and occasionally for national magazines. The columns and articles provided recognition to the charities and let readers know about each charity's needs and services. Many of the charities couldn’t afford a professional writer, and yet they needed to communicate with their supporters. I hope my volunteer writing helped meet this need.

Today, as a widow in New York, my activities are almost exclusively charity related. I have an unusual niche in the philanthropic world: it’s almost a full-time job for me, but several times a month I give donor cultivation or donor recognition events for local charities.The reason? If philanthropies don’t develop strong bonds with their donors and volunteers, their supporters may, over time, drift away. The charities know that recognition events are important, even crucial, yet their overriding obligation has to be delivering needed services. I felt I could, in a small way, meet this need by donating supporter recognition events at my home. I donate the location, the food, the beverages, the decorations, and the wait staff for parties of between 10 and 110 guests. In the last four years, I’ve entertained close to 4500 people at my home. (Coming from a hospitality background, this was a natural for me.)

Ninety-five percent of these events have been charity-related, but some have also been book parties, since, as a (soon-to-be-former) Commissioner of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, I love the idea of encouraging authors.

My other major charitable interest is in supporting veterans. In the past, Perdue Farms won the nation-wide Pro Patria Award, and we did it in part because my husband and I wrote personalized monthly letters to the 80 Perdue overseas Reservists, and also each month we’d send them magazines they requested as well as DVDs of current movies, and packages of food. If a Perdue Reservist was overseas, he or she could count on the normal things good companies do, such as keeping their civilian jobs and their seniority, but they’d also be receiving a continuous stream of letters and gifts and respect from two people who really cared about them.

I still do this today. There are roughly 40 MPs who are headed for Iraq plus various other military people for whom I’m “Mother Mitzi” and they also receive a steady stream of correspondence and gifts, including birthday gifts.

When I look back on my life, I realize that there’s a motto that guides me, one that grew out of my early training. I don’t say that I live up to it, but it’s one to which I aspire. It’s from Aristotle: the only true success in life is to find yourself in service to the community.

We loved her book and highly recommend it:

We are absolutely thrilled to present Mitzi Perdue as our latest Mover and Shaker.

Peachy Deegan interviewed Mitzi Perdue for Whom You Know.

Peachy Deegan: Of all of your careers, what have you enjoyed the most about each and why? 
Mitzi Perdue: I enjoyed hosting and producing my syndicated television most of all. I love communicating, I love the environment and energy of a TV studio, and I loved getting feedback from viewers.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were in your 30's? 
I wish I had known what an absolute roaring blast it is to be older! I had no idea that, assuming you have your health and aren't worrying about paying the rent, that it just gets better and better!
How did you learn how to write well originally? 
I never took an English course in college, but after college, I read books and magazine articles on writing and initially, followed them like paint by numbers. Also, I think being an omnivorous reader helps a writer develop an ear for what's working and what isn't.
Tell our readers please about your egg purses and egg dioramas and how you made them. 
I got into decorating eggs when a car accident kept me housebound for nine months. During that time I was BORED and looking for a hobby that would use up time. I chose decorating eggs because, since Frank's nickname was "the Chicken Man," I thought it would be fun to be an "Egg Lady." I make my EggScapes™ in an area that I call The Egg Plant."
What should most people know about Perdue the company and the chicken industry in general that most do not? 
The people whom I know who grow chickens put a phenomenal amount of effort into seeing that they are well-cared for. Even if they weren't caring people, they would have an economic incentive to make sure that their chickens are treated well because a stressed chicken won't grow well. This may surprise you, but the one time Frank was really angry at me was for mistreating a chicken. I didn't do it intentionally, and trust me, I learned better, but I had magic trick in which I produced a live baby chick from my magic bag. Frank sternly told me Never To Do That Again because a chicken is a flocking animal, and keeping it in the magic bag, away from it's flock, wasn't meeting its social and environmental needs.
What should most people know about Sheraton the company and the hotel industry in general that most do not? 
The co-founder of the company, my father, was actually an unusually shy man. To become almost a star in the hospitality industry, he had to overcome and transcend his innate shyness. He was an example of someone who could overcome his limitations.
Has anyone in Manhattan had more charitable parties than you in the last four years? 
No. (I wanted to leave it at just plain "no," because I thought that would be a funny answer, but instead, I'll elaborate a little. Up until very recently, I was giving donor cultivation or donor appreciation events for local charities at the rate of almost three a month. They typical size would be 30 to 60, but I've had 110 guests in my apartment.)

What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you at a cocktail party? 
Once when Frank and I were giving a party at our home in Salisbury, MD for all the sanitation workers who worked for Perdue (our goal was to entertain each of the 20,000 people who worked for Perdue), one couple there didn't seem to be enjoying the night's fun. They were off on the sidelines, not participating. I went over to them and discovered that although the wife worked for Perdue Farms, the husband worked for the city's sanitation department. He was unhappy because he was afraid his colleagues would never believe him, that he had had dinner at Frank Perdue's home. What was funny about this is, I told Frank the problem, and Frank had a Polaroid taken of himself with his arms around the couple and then autographed it, saying something personal along the lines of, "To my good friend Albert, it was great having you over for dinner!" The couple beamed and the guy told me that now he had bragging rights because his colleagues would believe him now.
How do you encourage others to give back? 
I can't swear that I do, but I'm not shy about sharing a quote that I like: "If you want to be happy, think what you can do for someone else. If you want to be miserable, thing about what's owed to you."
We know you are the dancing queen firsthand; what are your favorite dances and why? 
I love the waltz because it's elegant, graceful, and classy and makes me feel in touch with my inner Jackie. I love the rumba because it's sensuous and sexy and makes me feel in touch with my inner Marilyn!
What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence? 
Frank Perdue. Everything about him was about excellence.
What are you proudest of and why? 
My children. I agree with Jackie, who said, "If your children turn out well, nothing else matters. If your children turn out badly, nothing else matters."
What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do? 
I would really and sincerely like to be first lady. But you know, that just doesn't seem to be on offer these days!
What honors and awards have you received in your profession? 
Uh, this is too embarrassing! Well, here's one that I treasure: The Ellis Island Medal of Honor, and also the Women's Day Magazine Women Who Inspire Us Award.

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan? 
Either the University Club or Doubles.
What is your favorite shop in Manhattan? 
What is your favorite drink? 
Oh Peachy, how could you ask? (Okay, everyone, you all know the answer don't you? Can we all say real loud, THE PEACHY DEEGAN!)
What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan? 
It's not exactly a restaurant, but the food at Doubles can be glorious and I love to take people there.
What is your favorite Manhattan book? 
Does Too Big to Fail count? It's about finance in New York.
If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why? 
Could I get a manhole cover named after me? Although I'm fine with being conspicuous in person, I don't really want anything named after me.

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience? 
Dancing at Arthur Murray. No competition for this being the best athletic experience because it's great exercise, never boring, and you're developing a skill that you can use socially.
What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else? 
Manhattan has the world's most sophisticated and enjoyable dinner parties!
What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience? 
My favorite art form is opera, and the Met is incomparably the best!
What do you personally do or what have you done to give back to the world? 
I hope that the roughly 20 years of environmental columns might have made a difference, and I know that some of the donor cultivation events that I gave for charities resulted in very large donations.
What do you think is most underrated and overrated here? 
That's not easy to answer. I tend to agree with general assessments!
Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite Whom You Know column and what do you like about it? 
I'd like to answer this generically. I love the way the columns are upbeat, energetic, literate, enthusiastic, and contain new information.
Have you drank The Peachy Deegan yet and if not, why not? 
I've had three in one evening, on March 29th. They were great!

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you? 
Let's shy, modest, unassuming I am? Er, maybe not, in that this would be a tough sell! Oh wait, I have something better, and substantially more accurate: I love New York and I love New Yorkers!
How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers? 
I'm a telephone dropout and no longer use the phone. I do like e-mail, though:

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