PLANT CITY, FL -- Long-time strawberry grower-shipper Charles Lawton died Jan. 25 after a long battle with cancer. He was 57.
Born on a farm in Rushville, IN, Mr. Lawton originally entered the construction business before his love of agriculture lured him back to the produce industry. Mr. Lawton founded Dixie Growers in Plant City in 1981 with his brother and another partner, eventually taking sole control of the company.
"Charles was always rooted in agriculture," said Debbie Lawton, his former cousin-in-law and still Dixie Growers' office manager. "Charles was very much a people person. He made a lot of friends in the produce business."
Mr. Lawton grew his first crop of strawberries in the fall of 1980, and before long, he was handling crops for other strawberry growers as well.
"He loved growing and selling," Ms. Lawton told The Produce News, noting that Mr. Lawton also grew Bell peppers, cucumbers and squash, and maintained a cattle ranch. "We had quite a following of growers through the early years; they became friends, then very good friends. They went on hunting and fishing trips together and just had a lot of good times together and a lot of good-natured fussing - he was the bad broker and they were the poor farmers. He always came back with, 'I'm farming too -- I'm gonna get every dime I can for you because I know what it's like.' All around, he just was a grower-rancher at heart."
Mr. Lawton married the former Linda Terry, daughter of another Plant City strawberry grower, and over time became involved in the industry.
"He took a great deal of interest in the strawberry community in Plant City and a great deal of interest in how our government was doing," Ms. Lawton said. "He gained the respect of all the people who worked for him because of his work ethic. He might holler and carry on and scream at them, but he'd get out there in the dirt and work with them. He'd be in here by 7:30 in the morning and he would be out there on the line at midnight, six weeks at a time in the spring - sometimes longer. It seemed like he just never tired like everybody else did. Everybody else would be dragging, and Charles would still be out there excited about it. He loved what he did, and he was excited about it."
When he wasn't working, Mr. Lawton enjoyed hunting, fishing, skiing and scuba diving with friends.
He was also an avid supporter of University of Indiana basketball, the Cincinnati Reds baseball team and the Tampa Bay Lightning of the National Hockey League.
"He was a fighter his whole life," Ms. Lawton said. "He was very determined. If he wanted to get something done, he just did it. He was never afraid of work -- he was a workaholic. He had more energy than any of us. He was always the first one up and ready to go."
Mr. Lawton is survived by his wife, Linda; his son Charles Jacob Lawton, who is in the family business; his father and stepmother Edwin and Liz Lawton; his granddaughter Olivia Paige; and his sisters Susan Clark, Marilyn Cates, Sarah Duncan and Pamela Alteir.