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Longtime L.A. produce man Norman Gilfenbain dies at 82

Longtime Los Angeles produce wholesaler, grower and shipper Norman Gilfenbain died April 30 at the age of 82.

Mr. Gilfenbain was born in Boston on March 12, 1931, but soon thereafter his father moved the family to Los Angeles, where he was raised. He went to Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles and was an exceptional football player, according to his son Stuart Gilfenbain, who is sales manager of Eclipse Berry Farms in Oxnard, CA.NormangilfenbainA relatively recent photo of Norman Gilfenbain, flanked by Rick Hearst (left) and Stuart Gilfenbain, in the Eclipse Berry office where they all worked. Behind the trio is a photo taken about 30 years earlier of the three when all were at Cal Fruit.

"Mike Garrett (football great at the University of Southern California and in the National Football League) broke all of his high school records. That tells you how good my dad was."

The older Mr. Gilfenbain married his high school sweetheart, Gloria, after graduating, and the two moved to Boston where Norman started his produce career on the Boston produce market. He went to work for his two uncles, Chick and Harry Gilfenbain, and stayed there for a couple of years in the early 1950s.

By 1954, Mr. Gilfenbain was back in Los Angeles working for the R.A. Glass Co. However, a pay dispute with the owner over a $10 per week raise sent him to the wholesale operation next door, L.A. Nut House, where he launched a fruit division. Several other salesmen, such as Wally Rudy, joined him and stayed with him for years to come.

After a few years, Mr. Gilfenbain became a partner at L.A. Nut House and eventually bought out his co-partners. In 1963, he launched Cal Fruit and it became a mainstay on the Los Angeles produce scene for about a quarter of a century.

"First he was a wholesaler and then he got into the berry business representing about 20 Orange County growers," said Stuart Gilfenbain. "Next he got into the table grape industry and continued to grow both the wholesale business and the shipping business. Eventually he owned 17 different companies."

Mr. Gilfenbain was a pioneer in the Chilean grape deal and also represented other growers from throughout Central America and South America.

In the late 1980s, Mr. Gilfenbain sold off most of his companies and founded Eclipse Berry Farm. Eclipse grows and sells strawberries and grape tomatoes.

"My dad never retired," said Stuart Gilfenbain. "He was active up until near the end."

While pneumonia was listed as the cause of death, Mr. Gilfenbain, a smoker for 52 years, fought various ailments over the last couple of decades, including several cancers.

He is survived by Gloria, who actually was his kindergarten sweetheart, as well as his two children, Stuart Gilfenbain and Robin Gilfenbain Baker. He also has six grandchildren.