Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Epilogue | Charles Edwin Lawton

Charles Lawton, founder of Dixie Growers, was tough man with soft side

PLANT CITY — One busy spring, the workers at Dixie Growers were slammed on a daily basis. Trucks pulled in to the brokerage as late as 11 p.m., loaded with produce. The vegetables had to be processed and packed.

Close to dawn, more trucks would arrive. An office staffer confronted company owner Charles Lawton. The help was exhausted.

Mr. Lawton replied: "They can sleep all summer."

He started earlier, stayed later and worked harder than anybody else. Mr. Lawton, a strawberry grower and cattle rancher who founded Dixie Growers, a produce broker that ships to the southeastern United States, died Jan. 25, of skin cancer. He was 57.

"He was a heck of a man in this produce business," said Mark Bryan, a watermelon supplier who credits much of that business to contacts made through Mr. Lawton. "He was one of the last ones that a handshake meant something."

Mr. Lawton grew up in Rushville, Ind., a rancher's son. By his early teens, his family had moved to Florida and his father had begun building houses. In 1980, after a stint in his father's construction business, he leased farmland and bought cattle. He also created Dixie Growers, a wholesale brokerage, handling his own produce and buying from other growers.

Out of a long warehouse that looks like a train station, he shipped produce all over the southeastern United States. In the fields, his cattle grew to more than 900 head.

"He got out there and worked — whether it was digging a hole, building a fence, fixing a machine or on the packing line," said Debbie Lawton, who joined the business in 1981 with Jerry Lawton, her husband at the time and Mr. Lawton's cousin.

She acknowledged that Mr. Lawton could be a "taskmaster," an assessment with which 22-year Dixie Growers employee Carolyn Howell heartily agreed.

"It was a love-hate relationship," Howell said with mock seriousness. "We fought." But Howell and her twin sister, 25-year employee Marilyn Terry, were also sisters-in-law to Mr. Lawton, spent all of their holidays together and consider the occasional disagreement just part of a family business.

The same was true of growers, who sometimes quarreled with Mr. Lawton over what constituted a fair price.

"Every farmer accuses their broker of robbing them blind," said grower Earl Singletary. "Then when you're done, you go have a beer."

Singletary, 59, also went on hunting and fishing trips with Mr. Lawton to Colorado, Alaska and Canada. Singletary gave his friend a new gun every year, and helped him get his first turkey.

It was on one of those hunting expeditions that grower Richard Ercoli saw another side of Mr. Lawton. Ercoli, Mr. Lawton and others were staying at a small hotel in the Rockies when the men were first approached by the hotel's owner. "The man was a widower. He liked company," said Ercoli, 45. "We would come in every day, tired and ready to go get a shower."

Most of them did just that.

"Every afternoon we were there for 10 days, Charles would sit outside at 10 below zero for an hour and talk to the guy," Ercoli said." Before the hunters went home, Mr. Lawton asked the hotel owner to stand with them in a group photo.

There were other acts of quiet charity — like the Christmas Eve when Mr. Lawton suddenly asked Ercoli, who was driving, to swing by the bicycle shop. There, Mr. Lawton bought a bike for the son of one of his field workers.

"His father is an alcoholic," Mr. Lawton explained at the time. "I just figure he isn't going to have anything."

Health problems, including three liver transplants over the last decade, forced Mr. Lawton to ease off the work schedule. He was drifting in and out of consciousness as a recent freeze struck the area.

Just when his family thought he was gone for good, Mr. Lawton woke up. His first words: "How cold did it get?"

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


Charles Edwin Lawton

Born: Sept. 22, 1952.

Died: Jan. 25, 2010.

Survivors: Wife Linda Lawton; son Charles Lawton and his wife, Kensey; parents Edwin and Liz Lawton; sisters Susan Clark, Marilyn Cates, Sarah Duncan and Pamela Alteir; and two grandchildren.

Charles Lawton, founder of Dixie Growers, was tough man with soft side 02/05/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 6, 2010 8:33pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Would you let your company implant a chip in you?

    Working Life

    Would you ask an employee to get a chip implanted in her hand? Sounds invasive and intrusive. But come Aug. 1, one company in Wisconsin will be giving it a try.

    Three Square Market - a developer of software used in vending machines - is offering all of its employees the option to get a microchip implanted between the thumb and forefinger. [Photo from video]
  2. Florida taxpayers to shoulder $1.1 million in legal fees over 'docs vs. glocks' law

    State Roundup

    TALLAHASSEE — Florida will pay $1.1 million in legal fees to attorneys who challenged a controversial state law that sought to prevent doctors from asking patients about guns, a group representing opponents said Monday.

    Gov. Rick Scott signed the 2011 law after it "was approved by a large, bipartisan majority in the Florida Legislature," a spokesman said Monday.
[Photo by Joe Raedle | Getty Images]
  3. Daniel Lipton resigns as artistic director of Opera Tampa


    TAMPA — Daniel Lipton has resigned as artistic director of Opera Tampa, the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts announced.

    Daniel Lipton became the artistic director and conductor of Opera Tampa in 2012. Lipton replaced the opera's only previous director, Anton Coppola, who retired. [Times file (2012)]
  4. Two Ricks deliver video to AARP voter guide


    Last week, AARP Florida was a little ticked off that neither Mayor Rick Kriseman or former mayor Rick Baker had delivered video responses to a voter education campaign.

    The two Ricks have delivered their AARP videos
  5. Throwback Tampa Bay station 102.9 goes from R&B jams to WFLA-AM's conservative talk


    Talk radio station WFLA-AM (970) began simulcasting on 102.9 FM in the Tampa area this morning. 

    Tampa's 102.9 is going from Throwback Tampa Bay to WFLA-AM's news radio.