Obituary: Don Tyson, Tyson Foods' Former Chairman/CEO

Press enter to search
Close search
Open Menu

Obituary: Don Tyson, Tyson Foods' Former Chairman/CEO


Don Tyson, former chairman and CEO of Tyson Foods Inc., died at the age of 80 after a brief illness.

Born April 21, 1930 in Olathe, Kan., the late industry pioneer was the son of John and Mildred Tyson, the latter of which developed his business of hauling produce from northwest Arkansas to the larger markets in the Midwest such as Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago. By the time Don Tyson was a teenager, his father had started hauling chickens to those same markets and had also become involved in other aspects of the poultry business.

In the 1950s, Mr. Tyson spent most of his time working with his father to grow the family business, then known as Tyson Feed and Hatchery, supplying feed and baby chicks to local poultry producers in northwest Arkansas.

Mr. Tyson had moved up progressively in the company leadership, being named president in 1966 and then as chairman and CEO in 1967, when his father and step-mother were both tragically killed in an automobile-train accident in Springdale. He continued to serve as chairman, president and CEO until 1983, when long-time Tyson executive Leland Tollett was named president.

Named a "Pioneer of the Industry" by the National Chicken Council (NCC) in 2004 in recognition of his lifetime of achievements, the Washington, D.C.-based trade group hailed Don Tyson “a titan of the modern chicken industry. From the beginning of his leadership of his company, he saw the future of the industry and worked to make his vision a reality. He was a pioneer in moving beyond commodity chicken to value-added products and in the development of new products and international markets.”

NCC further noted Mr. Tyson’s pioneering role as “a key figure in transforming the industry into the powerhouse it is today. Not only his family and his company have suffered a loss, but the entire industry as well."

Cargill, Inc. also mourned the loss of Don Tyson as "a meat industry and business visionary whose tireless efforts to bring consumers better products and grow the company significantly contributed to the success of today’s Tyson Foods,” said Bill Buckner, SVP.  “The meat business benefitted from Don’s leadership, and we salute his many personal and professional accomplishments. He will be missed by those of us who had the good fortune to know him.”

After high school in Springdale and Kemper Military Academy in Missouri, Mr. Tyson attended the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, studying business and agriculture, but left before graduating to join his father in the family business in 1952. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters degree by the University of Arkansas at its May 2010 graduation ceremony.
In 1958 the company became “vertically integrated” by building its first chicken processing plant in Springdale, with Don Tyson overseeing the construction and then becoming its first plant manager. The company soon began to grow by acquiring other area poultry operations, and then went public with its initial public offering of stock in 1963 under the name Tyson’s Foods, Inc. until 1972, when it was changed to Tyson Foods, Inc.

The company continued to grow through the 1970s and 1980s with Don Tyson leading a series of acquisitions including Val-Mac, Lane Poultry and the 1989 purchase of Holly Farms, which more than doubled the size of the company and made it the largest poultry producer in the country.
In the late 1990s the company continued to grow, most notably with the acquisition of Hudson Foods in 1998. By this time, Don’s son John Tyson had succeeded Tollett as chairman of the board, with Don Tyson named chairman emeritus, where he continued to provide guidance and support for the company’s leadership team, including Tyson’s 2001 acquisition of IBP, Inc., a purchase engineered by his son John.  As a result of the acquisition, Tyson Foods, the largest poultry producer in the world, also became the largest beef processor and second largest pork processor, with annual revenues jumping from approximately $7.5 billion to more than $24 billion.
Renowned for his “No Bad Days” outlook on life and fondness of the phrase, “I don’t have time to have a bad time,” he was also well known for his active involvement in state and national politics, having been led by his father to believe that it was a citizen’s duty to take part in the political and electoral process. 

He was a world renowned fisherman, a founder of the Billfish Foundation that promotes the catch and release of marlin and other billfish, and was a long time member and benefactor of the International Game Fish Association (IGFA), a group that tracks and certifies world records for fishing. 

Mr. Tyson also created and led the Tyson Family Foundation, which among other things provides scholarships for post secondary students from communities where Tyson Foods has operations.  He has been a well known philanthropist in Arkansas and elsewhere, supporting countless causes, primarily in the fields of education, conservation and the arts.
He is survived by his son, John Tyson, and three daughters, Carla Tyson, Cheryl Tyson and Joslyn J. Caldwell-Tyson; sister-in-law Barbara Tyson; and two grandchildren, John Randal Tyson and Olivia Laine Tyson.
Visitation will be Friday, Jan. 7, from 4 to 6 p.m. at Sisco Funeral Home in Springdale, Ark.  A small, private family service is planned for Sat., Jan. 8, with John Tyson, John Randal Tyson, Leland Tollett, Donald “Buddy” Wray, Jim Blair, Greg Mohney, Ned Tabor and Fred Cameron acting as pall bearers.

Honorary pall bearers include Gary George, Mark Simmons, Bo Pilgrim, Jim Perdue, Archie Schaffer III, David Van Bebber, W.H. Taylor, Tom Schueck, Harry C. Erwin III, Hayden McIlroy, Paul Berry, Lloyd McCord, Woody Bassett, Clark Irwin, Butch Davis, Jim Kever, C.R. Magnus, Vahab Fatourechi, Mike Levitt, Johnny Morris, Joe Fred Starr, Herman Tuck, Dash Goff, Billy Moore, Jerry Jones, Willie Nelson, David Pryor, Dale Bumpers, Jim Compton, Mel Immergut, Joe Washington, and the 115,000 Tyson team members around the world.

A larger public memorial service is being planned, with details to be announced later.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to The Billfish Foundation, The Mayo Clinic and the Dale Bumpers College of Agriculture, Food and Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas, addresses for which are found below:

The Billfish Foundation
PO Box 8787
Fort Lauderdale, FL 3310-8787

The Mayo Clinic
200 First Street SW
Rochester, MN 55905

University of Arkansas
Dale Bumpers College of Agriculture, Food & Life Sciences
E108 AFLS Building
Fayetteville, AR 72701