She reflects on the values taught by her father, who co-founded the Sheraton hotel chain, and the legacy of her late husband’s family business, Perdue Farms.
Mitzi Perdue represents over 280 years of the American Dream. She is the daughter of a business titan – her father, Ernest Henderson Sr., founded the Sheraton hotel chain – and the widow of another – her late husband was Perdue Farms tycoon Frank Perdue. The Henderson Estate Company was established in 1840, while Perdue Farms was established in 1920. Mitzi was also a powerful businesswoman in her own right, starting her own wine grape business, Ceres Farms, which supplied some of the most great California vineyards.
She’s been surrounded by the world’s most successful entrepreneurs for most of her life, but she’s as unassuming as she is charming. Mitzi credits his humble aura solely to his parents, who were instrumental in shaping his character. Reflecting on her childhood, Mitzi fondly remembers her parents’ desire to establish a home that prioritized character over commodities. Frugality was – and remains – an undeniable value of the Henderson clan. “My parents went to great lengths to ensure their children weren’t spoiled,” she said. “They didn’t want us growing up in a wealth bubble. I enjoy that endlessly.
At the start of World War II, the Hendersons made the decision to move the family from Boston, Massachusetts to an idyllic farm 30 miles from Lincoln. This decision stems from their desire to immerse their children in a lifestyle that values hard work, self-respect and togetherness. It was a departure from the social life the family was accustomed to, but Lincoln became the setting in which many of Mitzi’s fondest childhood memories would be made.
Life on the farm, while simple, was certainly not easy. When not in school, Mitzi and her four siblings were responsible for daily chores like cleaning (removing manure); feed the cows, pigs and ducks; and clean the house.
In an effort to provide their children with a well-rounded education, the Hendersons enrolled them in public and private schools. As a result, Mitzi developed friendships with debutantes and dairy farmer daughters. Having a foot on both sides was, as Mitzi described it, “the most beneficial upbringing.”
Until she reached her teens, Mitzi was dressed in her siblings’ clothes. “The idea of getting my identity by buying designer clothes is not going to happen,” she said proudly. Instead, the Hendersons emphasized the importance of forming one’s identity through service. “The best life isn’t lots and lots of money; it is many, many values.
There is no doubt that the most important influence on Mitzi’s life was her father. In addition to instilling extraordinary values in his children, Ernest was a business pioneer with incredible foresight; at the time of his death, he owned 400 hotels. Despite the family’s incredible wealth, Mitzi recalls, “If I ever wanted anything, my dad’s response was always the same: ‘Earn it.'”
In the 1930s, the real estate industry was an absolute disaster; the hotels filed daily for balance sheet. In an effort to turn them into successful organizations, Ernest purchased many failing properties. Upon acquiring the assets, his first task would be to herd all the staff – who most likely feared losing their jobs to new hires – in the hotel ballroom. “The first words that came out of my father’s mouth were always: ‘Each of you must keep your job. I believe in you,” Mitzi recalled. As a further testament to Ernest’s dedication to his employees, the first areas of the hotel being renovated would always be the employee dining room, lockers, and other areas the public would never see. “My dad always thought a leader’s job was to give people a better view of themselves.”
Mitzi recalls a moment she shared with her father who, as she described it, “deepened [her] soul.” It was a Saturday afternoon and she was no older than 10. Mitzi wandered into her father’s home office to see him completely immersed in ledgers, books and paperwork. On such a beautiful morning, his dad should have been enjoying a day on the golf course like his friends. When Mitzi asked what he was up to, his dad revealed that he was reviewing requests for charitable donations.” He said the greatest pleasure his money ever gave him was giving it away.”
In addition to a dedication to charitable giving, the Hendersons also have a deep respect for heritage. As a result, as Mitzi put it, “they never air their dirty laundry in public.” Although the Henderson family has been around since the 1800s, it’s nearly impossible to find a story, or even a rumor, of a public family dispute. When asked how this was possible for such a large family, Mitzi replied, “One of the things our parents instilled in us was that jealousy didn’t play a role in how we interacted with each other. Our job was, if someone did well, to be happy for him, not to be jealous for him. When we were doing well, it enriched us all.
In 1988, at a party in Washington, DC, Mitzi’s life changed forever. Frank Perdue arrived late and Mitzi arrived early; their schedules only overlapped by 10 minutes. Those 10 minutes quickly became the start of an iconic love story that spanned over two decades. At the time, Mitzi was living in California and Frank was based in Maryland. The pair were immediately close; the connection was instantaneous. They found similarities in the trust issues that stemmed from each of their past relationship issues. In the middle of their conversation, Frank’s demeanor changed. He studied Mitzi’s face and stopped. Frank said he believed he could trust her. “And I looked up at him,” Mitzi recalled, “and I said, ‘I think I could trust you.’ They spent the remaining four minutes of their conversation discussing what their marriage might be like. Their decades-long marriage has become the most loving relationship Mitzi has ever known.
Today, Mitzi’s goal is to carry on the legacy of the Henderson and Perdue families. She wrote a handful of books based entirely on the lessons she learned from her father, husband, and friends. Once a woman with a debilitating fear of public speaking, Mitzi became a powerful presenter and she was tasked with speaking across the world.
If you ever have the pleasure of bumping into Mitzi at the airport, don’t expect all the glitz and circumstance that comes with being an heiress. “When you travel abroad, you will find me as a coach [class]”, Mitzi said. “I would much rather donate the thousands of dollars for a first class upgrade to charity.”
This article originally appeared in American Essence magazine.