Fifteen years after the Donald P. Corbett Business Building opened, a portrait of the successful poultry farmer who graduated in 1934 has been installed so students finally can put a face with a name.
The portrait, which hangs in the Dean’s Office Suite, was presented to the University by Ann Corbett Lucas of Pittsfield, Mass., a 1961 UMaine alumna and the oldest daughter of Donald Corbett, who died in 1988 after nearly 45 years in the poultry business. It had been on display in the American Poultry Historical Society’s Hall of Fame in Beltsville, Md., which recognized Don Corbett in 1980 for his outstanding achievements in the poultry industry. In 1995 when portraits of honorees were replaced with plaques, the picture was given to Francelia Corbett, Don’s wife, who in 1991 made the $1 million naming gift for the building to honor her late husband. A 1934 UMaine graduate, Francelia died in 2007.
“The painting belongs in the building that was named for my father,” said Ann, who attended a May 7 unveiling ceremony along with her husband, Bob, also a 1961 graduate. The portrait calls to mind UMaine’s agrarian roots and serves as a reminder to students that success doesn’t belong only to corporate executives, she added.
The owner of the 14th largest broiler producer operation in the country, Donald Corbett had operations in Alabama, Mississippi, Maryland and Indiana as well as Maine. In the 1950’s, he rented an abandoned industrial plant and founded the Fort Halifax Poultry Company, one of the first completely integrated poultry companies in the world.
After selling the Fort Halifax Poultry Company to Ralston Purina Company in 1961, he joined Ralston in St. Louis as a corporate vice-president. Under his administration, Ralston Purina became the largest broiler producer in the world with plants throughout the country and overseas.
In 1968 he left Purina and became executive vice-president of Arbor Acres Farm. Four years later he founded Corbett Enterprises, Inc., which could process nearly three million birds weekly. Corbett Enterprises also was in the egg business with more than three million laying hens in Maine, Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas. At one time it was the sixth largest egg producer in the country. Dried and processed eggs were sold to companies including Quaker Oats, Keebler, Entenmanns and General Mills for use in prepared and packaged foods. He also was involved in the poultry business in Venezuela, Pakistan, and Thailand.
“One of the things that made him successful was that he was good with numbers,” Ann said. “He could take a profit and loss sheet that someone else prepared, and know in an instant if it was correct. Numbers were definitely his thing.”
Don grew up outside of Boston and planned on attending Cornell University until he spent a summer in Orono with his uncle, then UMaine’s dean of men, according to Ann.
“This kid from the city decided he liked Maine and that he wanted to attend UMaine and major in animal husbandry,” she said.
Don was determined to succeed despite the Depression. “That first summer after graduation he slept in his car because he had been told that a job with the Maine Department of Agriculture would be available in the fall. He wanted that job!”
In 1937, Francelia, a home economics major who worked for the Cooperative Extension in Piscataquis County, inherited the family farm in Winslow, and she and Don began working the land, raising dairy cows and broiler chickens.
“My mother would drive the truck and my father would load hay while my sister and I slept on the front seat.”
Seeing the profit potential in poultry, the couple began building chicken houses. “They ruined the view of the woods from my room, but they sent me to college,” Ann said with a laugh.
The Corbetts’ business soon was thriving. “One of my dad’s goals was to make sure everyone had chicken on Sunday. He had friends in Maryland and Delaware who wanted hatching eggs. He knew farmers because he had worked with Oakhurst Dairy and he realized that some of them had barns they could turn into chicken houses. Soon he had people all over central Maine raising hatching eggs. He’d collect the eggs twice a week and ship them to Maryland and Delaware on trailer trucks.”
Don and Francelia, who never lost sight of the strong academic foundation they received at UMaine, became active alumni and generous supporters. National chairman of UMaine’s capital fund drive in the late 1970’s, Don served on the Board of Trustees from 1956 through 1962. He was honored with the Black Bear Award in 1975 and the Alumni Career Award in 1981. In addition, he was a philanthropist for civic, religious and needy causes in Waterville, and in Hartford, where they lived in their later years.
“Both he and my mother believed in giving back,” Ann said.
Don was an outspoken advocate for UMaine in more ways than one, according to Bob Lucas. When his father-in-law learned that well-known philanthropist Harold Alfond was supporting a small, liberal arts college in Maine, Don urged him to also remember UMaine since most of its students were residents of the state. Alfond subsequently became a staunch supporter of the flagship University.
Although he was a modest man who felt most comfortable in the background, Ann is certain that her father would approve of his portrait hanging in the building that bears his name.
“I feel good about giving it to the University.”
Image Description: Ann Corbett Lucas '61 and her husband, Robert Lucas '61, enjoy themselves at the May 2008 unveiling of D. P. Corbett's picture