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Avocado innovator Charles (Gil) Henry dies

Charles (Gil) Henry, who has long been associated with innovations allowing for the sale of ripe avocados, died on May 18 after losing a battle with lymphoma.

Mr. Henry is largely responsible for facilitating the huge growth in avocado demand at retail by marketing pre-ripened fruit and urging retailers to carry it.

"It was his idea to start the ripening process and sell fruit when it was starting to ripen rather than when it was hard as a rock," said Phil Henry, Bob-ViceBob Vice presenting Charles (Gil) Henry with the 2007 San Diego County Farmer of the Year Award.Gil's cousin and the current president of Henry Avocado Corp. in Escondido, CA. "Before that, you actually had to discount fruit that was showing any signs of breaking. Gil was truly a pioneer in pre-ripened fruit."

Many research projects have shown that retail sales of avocados are significantly greater when the consumer can buy ripe or ready-to-eat fruit.

Mr. Henry was born in 1925 and grew up on his parents' newly planted avocado grove in Escondido. It was the same year that Henry Avocado Packing Co. was founded by his father, Charles C. Henry. Gil Henry served in World War II, and then came back and joined in the family business.

In 1953, Gil's father died in a tractor accident on the farm and Gil took over the management, aided by his younger brother, Warren, and later, his cousin George Schoeffel.

The three grew the company into a very successful firm; in fact, today many employees as well as avocado growers who grow for the firm have family ties that date back to the 1950s.

Mr. Henry was involved in all aspects of the operation but he concentrated his efforts on packing and marketing. He was long a proponent of ripe fruit, and in 1983 Henry Avocado built the first forced-air ripening room in the avocado business. Today it has 54 rooms in several locations around the country, and virtually every avocado shipper has followed suit.

In those early years of pre-ripened fruit, Mr. Henry would hit the road calling on retailers all over the country preaching the gospel of ripe fruit.

One of the early proponents was King Soopers, where Mike Aiton was in charge of produce.

"Gil Henry showed up on my doorstep in Denver while I worked there with King Soopers," said Aiton, currently marketing manager for Prime Time International in Coachella, CA. "He had the radical idea that by pre-conditioning avocados at the receiving end we could improve customer satisfaction and dramatically increase consumption. We bought into it, with the help of Gil, and under his direction we converted a couple of small banana rooms to accommodate avocados. He was extremely passionate and invested a great deal of time, effort, and energy to help us get it right. I grew to admire and respect him during the course of this process and, of course, was thrilled when it finally worked.

"He was a man of great patience, vision and foresight, and I believe he does not get the credit he deserves for driving the avocado industry to the level that it is at today," Aiton added.    

Mr. Henry was also an early believer and promoter of the Hass variety in the 1950s when the Fuerte was the main variety. It would eventually become the industry standard-bearer and today proliferates around the world.

The company also began marketing itself as a grove manager for other growers, which allowed for a dramatic increase in production through the years.

Mr. Henry retired from the corporation about a decade ago but remained an active avocado grower. In fact, he died at home, which is in the middle of an avocado grove.

He is survived by his wife, Georgia, as well as four children and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.