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 [email protected]