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Warren Wheeler enjoyed long produce career

The produce industry lost "a kind, Southern gentleman" in Warren S. Wheeler, chief executive officer of the company that bore his name and that he founded in 1962 on the Tampa Wholesale Produce Market, who recently died from congestive heart failure. He was 88 years old.

"Our dad was a real great produce guy," said his son Jimmy Wheeler, co-vice president of Warren Wheeler Inc., who, along with his brothers Mike, the company's president, and Bill, the other co-vice president, began working for their father in the early 1970s. "Words can't describe the love we had for my dad. He wouldn't even go on vacations because he didn't want to be away from his sons here at the market. He just loved this market for its characters, the many stories and rich friendships he developed over the years. He came here every day until he could not come here anymore, which was about three weeks before he [died]. It was just awesome being with him every day. He was a tremendous father. He was like a Jimmy Stewart kind of guy, an old Southern gentlemen and the nicest guy in the world."

Mr. Wheeler got his start in the produce industry as a young boy working for his father, Mark (M.K.) Wheeler, who was the foreman at the Manatee Fruit Co. The two farmed together in Florida in Ruskin, Palmetto, Belle Glade and Homestead, and were among the early ones to grow lettuce to be shipped in Ruskin. Mr. Wheeler also made wooden crates for Manatee as well as different packinghouses not only in Florida, but also in Georgia, the Carolinas and even New York as the deal moved up the northeast coast during the spring and summer months, according to Jimmy Wheeler.

"He'd often tell me how good he was as a nailer," Jimmy Wheeler said. "He got real good at it and he could build a 22-nail crate and he could put 130 of those together in an hour and he got paid 75 cents per 100. He got so good at it. The power would go off in the packinghouse at nighttime while he was nailing and he would just keep on nailing because he could feel his way in the dark because he got so good at nailing the crates."

Before he came to the Tampa market, Mr. Wheeler was a fruit and vegetable inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where for a time he inspected vegetables for Campbell Soup Co. and later the peanut harvest at a prison in Alabama.

"He told me one time about getting into the ring and boxing with some of the prisoners," Jimmy Wheeler recalled.

"When our dad started working on the Tampa Wholesale Produce Market in 1948, this market was a shipping point and most people in the country would come to the Tampa market to get their winter vegetables," Jimmy Wheeler said. "They were all shippers that had farmers who grew for them and most of their business was out of state. He grew up with a lot of the farmers in Palmetto and Ruskin, and the first day when he came to the market, these farmers came and started working with my dad because they all knew him. When he started in 1948, he had 107 farmers that grew for him."

Jimmy Wheeler fondly recalled the time his father told him about one of his competitors on the Tampa market, Luther Hunter. "Luther once bet our dad that he couldn't pick up two double field crates of oranges, which weighed about 250 pounds, end-to-end, in one hand, and walk with them. Luther lost. My dad was a heck of a man."

Stating that Mr. Wheeler will always be remembered for his honesty and his integrity, Jimmy Wheeler said, "Everything had to be done right down the middle and be as honest as you could be. He told us that the more honest you are, the more business you will do."

Besides produce, Mr. Wheeler's other passions were golf and his horse, Whitey, which he rode quite frequently until about 15 years ago.

"He always loved horses, and when he got married to my mom, the way he went to work at Manatee was on his horse from Ellenton to Palmetto," Jimmy Wheeler said. "There was one story I remember: When he was 70-years-old, a rattlesnake spooked his horse. He took out his bullwhip, which he was very proficient with, and popped the snake once behind the head and killed it."

In addition to his three sons, Mr. Wheeler is survived by a fourth son, Buddy; his wife of 69 years, Doris; his sister,, Betty Plum; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.