PITTSBURG - Funeral arrangements have been made for Pittsburg philanthropist and businessman Lonnie "Bo" Pilgrim, whose national fame as a chicken producer made his name a household word.

Pilgrim died Friday. He was 89.

Visitation will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at First Baptist Church of Pittsburg, according to Erman Smith Funeral Home. The funeral service will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday. First Baptist Church of Pittsburg is located at 300 Jefferson St.

"I was sad to hear about the loss of Bo," said former Tyler Mayor and state senator Kevin Eltife. "He was an incredible friend. He did so much for not only Northeast Texas, but the entire state. He started from nothing and built an incredible company, creating thousands of jobs. And he was active politically, and was instrumental in state government in promoting a great business environment. He was very supportive of me in my time in state government. Our prayers are with his family."

Pilgrim was a friend and a mentor to local attorney Gaylord Hughey Jr.

"I started early on in my law practice representing him," Hughey said. "I watched him through the good times and the hard times, and what I really remember is how much he believed in the power of prayer."

Hughey recalled a meeting with a congressman "who wanted to rake Bo over the coals about something."

"But Bo said let's pray together first," Hughey recalled. "He got down on his knees and they prayed. That changed the dynamics of the meeting and really allowed them to reach a resolution. He truly walked the walk. That was always his approach to any problem - the power of prayer."

 

COMPANY HISTORY

The company's origins date back to the 1940s when Aubrey Pilgrim and his partner, Pat Johns, purchased a Pittsburg feed and seed store, according to its company website.

Little brother "Bo" joined the efforts, working long hours to help keep the business afloat, incorporating new methods to boost production and efficiency.

The company expanded into Mt. Pleasant and things took an unexpected turn in the 1960s with the death of Aubrey Pilgrim, an event that pushed Bo Pilgrim into leadership as the company's head.

The company weathered myriad financial storms over the years before stabilizing.

Pilgrim later passed the reins to son, Ken, but retained a role in the company.

Pilgrim's Pride, a reported $9 billion industry with more than 35,000 employees, is today headed by CEO Bill Lovette, who accepted the position in 2011.

The company today works with more than 4,000 family farms throughout the United States and Mexico and processes more than 10 billion pounds annually, according to its website.

PILGRIM THE MAN

Pilgrim, a man of faith, never forgot his roots, according to some who knew him.

Speaking at an East Texas Christian Academy fundraiser in 2004, Pilgrim said, "I didn't come here to sell chicken. I came here to sell Jesus. Because when I am in heaven, God is not going to ask how many chickens I grew, but what I did for Him."

Pilgrim's Pride is a key East Texas employer and investor in community endeavors, such as Pilgrim Bank situated in the heart of Pittsburg.

Pilgrim seemed especially fond of that small town, celebrated for peaches, historic homes and southern charm.

Pilgrim was devoted to East Texas, recalls state Sen. Bryan Hughes.

"I met him when I was in high school, when he spoke at an event in Mineola," Hughes said. "I got to know him better in 2001. He was a big supporter to me, ever since my very first race. He encouraged me, he allowed me to put up signs on his property, he helped us financially."

Pilgrim was a godly man who remained humble, Hughes said, and he was unique.

"This may not be well known about Bo Pilgrim, but he was a highly sought-after speaker," Hughes said. "He spoke to schools, service clubs, organizations. And every time he gave a speech, whether it was to a 30-member Rotary Club or 3,000 students at a university, he made sure his staff placed in every seat a pamphlet with the plan of salvation and a crisp new $20 bill tucked inside. There's no telling how many thousands of those he gave away."

GIVING BACK

Pilgrim built a home on the outskirts of town and a prayer park in the 1990s in the center of town.

It's the latter that seems to provide a glimpse of the man behind the grandfatherly figure donning a pilgrim hat in company commercials.

"It's a hidden treasure," longtime Pilgrim Bank official Charlotte Brewer said earlier this year, describing the impact the prayer park has made on the area. "It's called Witness Park. Mr. Pilgrim is a born again Christian, and this was built as a depiction of the life of Christ."

She serves as senior executive vice president and director of marketing for Pilgrim Bank, another Pittsburg institution.

The park features a reflection pool, 75-foot-tall Prayer Tower and towering walls of stained glass, depicting the life stages of Jesus Christ.

There's a life-size bronze statue of Jesus washing the feet of the disciple Peter, and four Paccard bells from France chime and play hymns on the hour.

The setting is enjoying a growing popularity in recent years as a destination for small weddings, bridal photos, prom pictures and family reunion snapshots.

Pilgrim was a regular morning visitor until recently, Ms. Brewer said.

"It's a tranquil, respite from stress," she said. "It's a gift to the community, for them to enjoy. Mr. Pilgrim is a visionary … People are proud to have it in a town we call home."

In a related project, the late businessman is also credited for backing the recently completed Pilgrim Plaza, a one-acre site for sitting, reading and community gatherings.

Allen Weatherford, executive director of the Pittsburg - Camp County Chamber of Commerce, said earlier Pilgrim's generosity is helping put the town on the list of traveler must-sees.

"A lot of people come here just to see the Prayer Tower and the Witness Park," he said. "It's a great thing for our area."

Pilgrim's death will leave a void in East Texas, said Hughey.

"You don't replace leaders like Bo Pilgrim," he said. "You can try to emulate them, but you can't replace them."

 

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