Citrus baron Griffin dies at 79

Published March 2, 1990|Updated Oct. 16, 2005

Ben Hill Griffin Jr., a Florida citrus baron who was one of the United States' richest men and a University of Florida "Bull Gator," died Thursday (March 1, 1990) at his Avon Park home. He was 79. The cause of death was not disclosed. He was hospitalized for 13 days last month with a blood infection complicated by pneumonia.

Worth an estimated $390-million, according to Forbes magazine, Mr. Griffin was a philanthropist, environmentalist, former legislator, candidate for governor, and chief executive officer of family-owned Ben Hill Griffin Inc., a major citrus processor in Frostproof.

He was chairman of Alico Inc., a company he built into a 120,000-acre domain from a 10-acre grove his father gave him as a wedding present. The company owns citrus, cattle and phosphate property.

"He had two things going for him _ he was a workhorse and he also was a risk-taker," said retired citrus grower George McClure of Apopka, who had known Mr. Griffin since 1950. "He was the type fellow that had enough confidence in our industry that when things looked bad, he was expanding when other people were pulling in their horns."

His son and successor, Ben Hill Griffin III, said the family had been "immeasurably touched by the outpourings of friendship and concern during my father's last illness, from his friends and colleagues."

A high-profile supporter of University of Florida football, Mr. Griffin donated more than $16-million to his alma mater and established a chair of agricultural economic mar

keting at the Gainesville school. In recognition of his gifts, the school named the stadium at Florida Field for him last year.

"Ben's commitment to enhancing the future of his state was typified by his tremendous support of his beloved University of Florida," Gov. Bob Martinez said.

U.S. Sen. Bob Graham praised Mr. Griffin as "a legend in Florida for much of this century _ in agriculture, public service and education."

His name often was in the news during 1989-90 when scandal riddled the university's athletic program and head football coach Galen Hall and head basketball coach Norman Sloan resigned.

Not dismayed, Mr. Griffin said two days after Sloan quit: "It's great to be a Gator. When the smoke settles, the sun will rise, and everything will be hunky-dory."

Last September, Mr. Griffin met with then-Duke University football coach Steve Spurrier, who later became head coach of the Gators. At the time of the meeting, Mr. Griffin said he was not recruiting Spurrier, who won the Heisman Trophy as a Gator quarterback.

Ben Hill Griffin Jr. was born in Tiger Bay, just west of Fort Meade, in 1910 "during a tremendous hurricane that cut through Central Florida," he said in 1981. He was the youngest child and the only boy among four children born to a Georgia father and a South Carolina mother, Sarah Guignard Maxcy Griffin. His father worked in Polk County's phosphate fields before buying land at Frostproof about 1902 for orange groves.

After graduating from Frostproof High School, young Mr. Griffin took a three-year course in agriculture at the University of Florida.

His first job after returning from the university was in a fruit packinghouse in Frostproof. It taught him a lesson.

"The biggest week I had working at the packinghouse was $25.25 for 101 hours," he recalled. "There were no deductions. And I learned that a man's not worth much after he has worked 60 or 70 hours in a week."

While working for the packinghouse, he became an agent for a fertilizer company, at first on commission and later for a salary of $165 a month. In 1935 he bought a run-down citrus grove and built it up and took a job as manager of a Frostproof fertilizer plant.

Meanwhile, he bought a 10,000-acre ranch in Hardee County for $29,000. He bought his first packing plant at Avon Park in 1948. Six years later, he opened a canning plant in Bartow, another step in amassing his empire.

In 1974, he ran unsuccessfully for governor with his wife, Ellie, as his running mate. He lost in the Democratic primary to the incumbent, Reubin Askew. Between 1956 and 1968 he served in the state House of Representatives and the state Senate.

Mr. Griffin, who donated a chapel to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, served many organizations in the Florida citrus industry. The Ben Hill Griffin Jr. Citrus Hall at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred was built largely through his efforts, according to a company statement.

A member of the state's Agricultural Hall of Fame and the Citrus Hall of Fame, Mr. Griffin served on the first board of directors of Florida Citrus Mutual, the giant grower cooperative. He was a past president of the Florida Cattlemen's Association.

In recognition of his entrepreneurship, the Merchants Association of Florida gave him the Florida Enterprise Medal in 1989.

He was a member of the Masons, Shriners, Elks and Woodman of the World.

In 1987, he was awarded the Great American Award by the Exploring Division, Gulf Ridge Council, Boy Scouts of America.

He had served as a director on the boards of Sun Banks, Hendry County Bank, Founder Financial Life Insurance Co. and Kaplan Industries. He was an adviser and honorary member of the Future Farmers of America, past president of Florida Citrus Producers Association and the Polk County Cattleman's Association, and former trustee and adviser of the Polk County School Board.

Other survivors include a sister, Naomi Drane, Sebring; four daughters, Harriett G. Harris, Bartow, Sarah Jane Alexander and Lucy Anne G. Collier, both of Frostproof, Francie G. Milligan, France; a stepdaughter, Julie Chapman, Avon Park; 16 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Friends may call Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church of Frostproof. Graveside services will be at 11 a.m. Monday at Silver Hill Cemetery, Frostproof. Marion Nelson Funeral Home, Lake Wales, is in charge.

The family suggested memorial contributions to the Children's Home Society, Rose Keller Division, 842 S Missouri Avenue, Lakeland 33801. Attention: Linda K. Rowland, CPA-director of administrative services.

_ Some of the information in this obituary came from the Associated Press and Pioneer Florida and from stories by Tom Zucco in the St. Petersburg Times and Barry Stavro in Florida Trend magazine.