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Epilogue | Roy Parke Jr.

Roy Parke Jr., the Strawberry King, dies at 87

DOVER

Gary Parke remembers his father's advice: "Figure out what you want to do and find the person who is best at it.''

Watch. Learn.

"If you are in their face more than anybody else, you win."

For Gary, now 45, that person was his father, Roy Parke Jr., known widely as the "Strawberry King" of Hillsborough County, the winter strawberry capital of the world.

Practically everyone knew about Parkesdale Farms on Tanner Road, due in no small measure to Mr. Parke's gift at promotion, from wagon rides he gave visitors around his 150-acre property to the tourist buses that stop almost daily at the farm's store on U.S. 92 for strawberry shortcake.

The first President Bush swung by, as did Gov. Jeb Bush and William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys. Scores of visitors have marked their home countries with pins in a world map inside the store.

Mr. Parke died Thursday (June 5, 2008) at South Florida Baptist Hospital in Plant City after a heart attack. He was 87.

A risk taker, Mr. Parke jumped quickly on new ideas that were revolutionizing farming. He was the first to ship strawberries to Europe, in 1963. In the 1960s, he also began covering rows of strawberries in plastic, a pest-prevention technique that until then was being used only on vegetables.

"He is certainly, without question, the most recognizable name in the Florida strawberry industry in the last 40 years," said Gary Wishnatzki, president of Wishnatzki farms in Plant City.

The son of an Irish farmer, Mr. Parke immigrated to the United States at age 5. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help his father, Roy Parke Sr.

In 1943, he married a city girl named Helen, six weeks after meeting her while on Army duty in St. Louis. He was tall and slim and an easy talker.

Before long, Helen found herself on his Pennsylvania dairy farm, getting up at 5 a.m. They worked side by side in the cold silence of morning.

"It's the best time of day," said Helen Parke, 82. "You can collect your thoughts. No one is bothering you."

In 1951, the gas company found natural gas on three spots on the farm. Mr. Parke was happy with the wealth the ground had provided him. "He was never one to turn down a dollar," Mrs. Parke said.

He later sold the property and moved to Dover, where his father had already bought 10 acres of farm property. The two men farmed strawberries together, buying up adjacent properties with the profits.

Mr. Parke's five children helped, impelled by a family dictum ("no workee, no eatee"). The boys, Bobby and Gary, were managing work crews by their mid teens.

In the endless rows, with sweat stinging his eyes, Gary Parke knew what it meant if the workers suddenly picked up their pace.

"Dad's coming."

Quick to dispense praise or a swift verbal kick, Mr. Parke inspected the yield, admonishing some and congratulating others. If the blueberries weren't piled just so in their wicker baskets, Mr. Parke could erupt.

"There were things he said in temper," Gary Parke said. "But from what I've seen from people with bad tempers, they can't turn it on and off."

Mr. Parke often worked alongside his laborers, as did his sons. It is how he won their respect, and the reason some have stayed for decades.

As Parkesdale Farms grew, so did Mr. Parke's stature in the community. He helped found the Dover Volunteer Fire Department, and was a lifelong promoter of the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City, and was a leader in both. He was a past president of the Dover Elementary PTA and the Plant City High athletic boosters.

When the temperature dropped near freezing, Mr. Parke sprayed his crops with water to coat the berries in ice, another cutting-edge technique to keep the fruit from getting even colder. He was CNN's go-to source when a freeze made national news, which in turn enhanced the reputation of Parkesdale Farms.

"Everything he did was about promotion," said Ken Andrews, 75, a Parkesdale sales executive. "Even if it wasn't the best, he made you think it was."

That gift of gab left quickly after a stroke in 2000 made it increasingly difficult for Mr. Parke to talk. The last two years of his life, he communicated with his eyes and hand squeezes.

Mr. Parke's picture stands on a tripod in the rear of the expansive Parkesdale Farms fruit stand, next to a bronzed plaque called "Why I Choose Not to Be a Common Man."

Among its sentiments: "I will not trade freedom for beneficence, nor my dignity for a handout. I will never cower before any master."

Jordana Carlson, 15, who read the inscription Thursday between bites of an ice cream sundae, had heard of Mr. Parke. She found his personal mission statement "amazing."

"I thought he was just a farmer," she said. "I didn't know he had all these ideals, that he was doing all of this for some reason."

In the picture on the tripod, Mr. Parke is wearing a strawberry red ball cap. That was his favorite color.

His family is encouraging mourners to wear something in strawberry red at his memorial service Monday.

Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (813) 661-2431 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

.FAST FACTS

Roy Parke Jr.

Born: Oct. 18, 1920.

Died: June 5, 2008.

Survivors: Wife, Helen; daughters Cheryl Meeks, Sandee Sytsma and Colleen Fulton; sons Bobby Parke and Gary Parke; and numerous nieces, nephews, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Memorial celebration: 7 p.m. Monday (visitation from 3 to 6:30 p.m.), Evangelical Presbyterian Church, 1107 Charlie Griffin Road, Plant City.

Roy Parke Jr., the Strawberry King, dies at 87 06/05/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 10, 2008 1:45pm]
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