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Anthony Rossi, founder of Tropicana, dead at 92

Published Oct. 8, 2005

Anthony T. Rossi, founder of orange juice giant Tropicana Products Inc. and a religious philanthropist, died Sunday in Bradenton. He was 92.

A large, friendly man, he appeared to have a magic touch in business, turning opportunities into gold. Vigorous into his 80s, he gave the credit to God and America. His contribution, he said, was hard work.

He arrived in the United States from Sicily at age 21 with $25 in his pocket. His only English: "Please," "Yes," "No," and "I am hungry."

Rossi died in the emergency room of HCA/L.

W. Blake Memorial Hospital after becoming ill at home, a funeral home spokeswoman said Monday.

The inventive Italian immigrant founded what became Tropicana in 1946 with $15,000; he left the company _ the largest employer in Manatee County _ in 1979 after its sale to Beatrice Foods Inc. for $495-million.

When Seagram Co. Ltd. agreed in 1988 to buy Tropicana for $1.2-billion, Rossi observed from his Bradenton home: "That is a lot of money, but Tropicana will make a lot of money."

With money the least of his worries, the financial, mechanical and managerial wizard devoted the last years of his life to a widespread Christian philanthropy.

Favored among his religious projects was Bible Alliance, a ministry that produced more than 750,000 cassette tape recordings of the Scriptures and Bible studies and gave them away to missionaries in about 100 countries.

To ensure that they could be heard anywhere, Rossi developed a small cassette player that could be powered by any electrical source _ 110 or 220 volts, AC or DC, 12-volt auto batteries or D flashlight batteries _ or by a built-in, hand-cranked generator.

Another major religious project was a $10-million retirement center for missionaries. The center, eight miles east of Bradenton, provides free housing for hundreds of former missionaries.

All of his gifts, including scholarships for divinity students, were financed by the Aurora Foundation, once reported to be the richest in Florida when it possessed $78.7-million in assets. Rossi set up the foundation in the early 1960s and rejuvenated it after the sale of Tropicana with a good portion of his fortune.

To Rossi, who was born and reared a Catholic but later became a Methodist and a Baptist, being able to give away his money was "a joy."

Nearly from that first day he arrived in this country, he once declared, he never was without a job or a business of his own. And each taught him something that proved valuable later on.

The day after he reached New York, he started working in a machine shop owned by an uncle of a nurse in the hospital in Sicily where his father was the administrator. In the following years, "Nino," as his friends called him, was a bricklayer's helper, foundry worker, carpet washer, dishwasher, chauffeur, cab driver and owner of a small fleet of rental cars and limousines.

His work at a fresh-egg delivery service introduced him to the food business. He later opened a dairy store and a self-service food market and a restaurant.

Attracted by tomato farming, he sold his businesses in 1940 and moved to Virginia with his wife, Florence, the daughter of a Methodist minister. A year later, they moved farther south "to get warm." In Bradenton, they bought land, planted 50 acres of tomatoes and joined a Methodist Church.

"I pray to God," Rossi recalled in 1983. "I say, "Lord, if I make $5,000 profit, I'll be satisfied.' At the end of the year, I count up and I make exactly $5,000. I say, "Shucks, I should have asked for $10,000.'

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Encouraged by his success, he bought the Floridian cafeteria in Bradenton and made money but failed to find sites in St. Petersburg or Tampa to expand. It was during World War II, and new construction had virtually stopped.

Gasoline rationing crippled a restaurant operation he next attempted in Miami, and he turned to selling gift boxes of oranges and grapefruit.

"Soon, I was packing fruit for other people," he said, "so I bought a packing house in Palmetto and began shipping the fruit for Miami Beach hotels and Sears, Roebuck. I was selling it by the carload."

Looking for expansion possibilities, Rossi became the first fruit shipper to devise a method of packing grapefruit and orange slices in glass containers. To use the small oranges not suitable for shipping or slicing, he began squeezing juice. He developed the first successful method of keeping it fresh-tasting in cardboard cartons.

To make his business operations self-supporting, he built a box plant, a glass plant and a railroad-car repair shop for "my train," a milelong string of orange boxcars that began hauling juice north in 1970.

He called his business Miami Citrus Packing House when he launched it in 1945 and renamed it Manatee River Packing Co. after moving his operations to Bradenton in 1946.

"In '49 or '50, I was going to Miami," he recalled in a 1977 interview, "and I was praying to get a name for my company. Then, on the way to my house, I saw three or four small cabins with the name Tropicana Cabins.

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"Tropicana!' I said. "That's the name.' And right away I registered the name."

Rossi's first wife, Florence, died in 1952. Eight years later, he met and married Sanna Barlow, a missionary who sparked his interest in recording the Scriptures.

She survives him. Other survivors include three brothers, Joseph T. Rossi of Bradenton, and Alfredo T. Rossi and Salvatore T. Rossi, both of Messina, Italy; and a sister, Elvira Nicosia of Bradenton.

Funeral services will be 10:30 a.m. Thursday at Calvary Baptist Church in Bradenton. Burial will be at Manasota Memorial Park. Griffith-Cline Funeral Home, Bradenton, is in charge.

The family suggested memorial contributions to Wycliffe Bible Translators, P.O. Box 2727, Huntington Beach, CA 94657, or Columbia Bible College and Seminary, P.O. Box 3122, Columbia, SC 29230-3122.

_ Some information in this obituary came from stories by Jeanne Pugh, Cynthia Mayer, Stephen Magagnini and James Greiff in the St. Petersburg Times and from a story in the Tampa Tribune and Florida Trend magazine.