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PURE GOLD: FLORIDA CITRUS // The Orange Man

Fidgeting comes as naturally to Thomas B. Mack as drinking orange juice. Standing at his desk, talking on the telephone, he runs his hands through a crop of unruly white hair, adjusts his horn-rimmed glasses, hums, whistles, plays with a pencil, gazes out the window, tugs on his tie, shuffles papers, says "uh-uh, uh-uh" about a hundred times, and tries to make plans for the afternoon. He looks as if he is about to jump out of his skin.

Hanging up, he says: "When I retired, I thought I'd have some time on my hands. No! No! No! It hasn't worked out that way. I got more to do than I can possibly take care of!"

This afternoon, Thomas B. Mack, professor emeritus at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, is going to advise someone about landscaping, which is perfectly all right with him, because he is rather good at it. When someone needs to know what kind of plants to grow in the yard, and where to put them, and what kind of fertilizer to apply, he is happy to oblige. But what he would rather do is talk about citrus.

Citrus is Professor Mack's meat and potatoes, if you will, and in Florida he is sometimes known as "Mr. Citrifacts." At Florida Southern he has taught all aspects of citrus farming and marketing for going on half a century. He writes a monthly column for Citrus Industry magazine and is the author of Citrifacts, a book that could easily be subtitled "Everything You Want To Know about Oranges, Grapefruits, Tangerines and Limes But Are Afraid to Ask." He is founder of his college's Thomas B. Mack Citrus Archives, which is the Citrus Institute's museum of old photos, books and records and celebrates Florida's five-century citrus history.

Mr. Citrifacts' home in Lakeland is painted orange, and the trim is painted a grapefruit yellow.

"I guess you know I was voted into the Citrus Hall of Fame," he says. Alas, his visitor is ignorant. "I will be inducted by Gov. Chiles on March 21 in Winter Haven at the Nora Mayo Hall," he goes on. "By the way, I'm the only inductee who is still alive."

He looks about 70.

"Yes, I'm 70," he says. "And then you have to add 12 years. I was born on Oct. 27, 1914. My battery does start to run low at the end of the day, but as long as the sun is up, I am, too."

Better than fresh

He says everyone should drink Florida orange juice. It keeps a person young. He drinks a glass every morning, and no juice squeezed from a backyard orange ever passes his lips. Like most advocates of Florida's citrus industry, which sends 92 percent of its product to juice concentrate factories, he says ever-improved commercial juice is better than the stuff people squeeze in their kitchens. Don't dare suggest otherwise.

"There are people who will tell you that fresh-squeezed is better than the commercial product," he says with a sniff, "but I don't think it is. We used to do a test at the college. We'd serve people fresh-squeezed, and we'd serve them the commercially produced juice. I think 95 percent of the time people couldn't tell the difference."

Although he was born in South Carolina, he calls it fate that the town was named Orangeburg. He was 6 when his parents moved to Central Florida, where citrus was a major industry and his father worked for a seed store. Groves sprawled across thousands of acres, and a future citrus advocate could stand on any hill and see orange trees stretching to the horizon.

At the University of Florida he studied landscaping, but there were no landscaping jobs, so he ended up teaching citrus courses to returning veterans at a state agriculture school. He'd invite citrus industry leaders into his classroom to lecture, and he would devour their every word.

He grew oranges and sold them at roadside stands. He operated a roadside juice bar. He was a citrus broker, locating the best groves for the best packing companies, for a piece of the action. In 1951, he began teaching at Florida Southern. He has taught citrus history, plant propagation and soils and fertilizers. He tells people, "I developed this program into the best citrus program in the country. It's not bragging. It's fact. I would like to believe we are teaching at this very moment the future leaders of the citrus industry."

When students visit his campus office, he asks them to take a seat. In front of them is his mind-boggling desk. If an empty desk is a sign of an empty mind, then Professor Mack is the Einstein of the orange. His desk long ago lost the war to books, notes, papers, rocks, shark's teeth, folders, rubber bands, pencils, paper clips, a magnifying glass, a shoe brush and a bottle of Elmer's Glue. There is a sign that says, "The Older I Get The Better I Used to Be."

A good sign pleases Professor Mack. Here is one of his favorites: "They Shall Bend Their Swords Into Plowshares and Their Spears into Pruning Shears."

From his bulging bookshelf hangs a large envelope like a Ruby Red grapefruit. Inside the envelope is his "Thought for the Day." Today's thought is: "The Plan is the Thing."

Say what?

"You have to think before you act," he says. "Want to know my larger plan?"

His visitor is a curious man.

Professor Mack says, "One is nearer God's heart in a garden than anywhere else on Earth. I really believe that."

He believes the apple in the Garden of Eden was probably a citron, a citrus family member sometimes known as the Golden Apple. Professor Mack is devoutly religious. Could citron be his favorite fruit? He almost blushes when people ask the name of his favorite citrus. "I like them all," he stammers, not wishing to offend. Push him for an answer and he says, "That's such a hard question." Insist and he comes clean.

"I would say a Sunburst tangerine is my personal favorite. I have to hold onto my tongue because I want to swallow my tongue along with the juice.

"Among grapefruits, my favorite has to be the Henderson red. You're familiar with the Henderson Red? No? Well, inside the fruit is as red as this folder. Maybe a little redder. I mean, blood red. To me, there is no bitterness in a Henderson Red. I mean, the tang is gone. And it looks so beautiful on your plate."

In the monthly column Professor Mack writes for Citrus Industry he tries to uncover little-known citrus facts. Here is how one column began: "Did you know the orange is a berry? You certainly wouldn't think so, but the citrus fruit is botanically a berry."

His best columns are included in a book-length collection, Citrifacts. Do not look for Citrifacts in your local bookstore. Do not even ask about it. It is available only from Professor Mack, and only to people who give him a $20 donation that he passes on to the college's Citrus Institute.

He is not bashful about raising money. Years ago, when he retired from full-time teaching, students gave him an $8,000 check with which he was supposed to take his wife of 59 years on a trip around the world. He thanked everyone but told them that although $8,000 might be enough to send him and the missus away, it would not be enough to bring them home. A few days later, the gift had increased to $12,500.

When he began contemplating building the Citrus Institute on his college's campus, he knew money was going to be a problem. He visited one of Florida's wealthiest citrus farmers and left with a $500,000 check. He soon realized that $500,000 might not be enough. So he visited other citrus magnates, who anted up, too. The building soon was paid for.

A growing collection

When Professor Mack was a boy, he collected everything. He had rocks, butterflies, arrowheads and sticks. He says he never threw away a book. As his interest in citrus grew, so did his collection of citrus memorabilia. Pretty soon he needed a room, and it became the Citrus Archives.

Over the years he has collected photos, maps, antique books, orange crate labels, technical reports and many pictures of citrus festival queens. He always is visiting citrus packing houses and begging for historical material. Recently, he traveled to an old packing house near Winter Haven and asked to look at old papers and photographs. When he opened the drawer, he almost wept when dozens of roaches spilled out. He even saw rat feces.

"Perry," he said to the foreman, "you've got to give this stuff to me. It's too valuable for this to happen." Perry said no, he couldn't give Professor Mack the records without his boss' okay. Two months passed, and Perry's boss said yes. Now the records take up two file drawers at the Citrus Archives.

Visitors to the Citrus Archives often get a tour led by Professor Mack himself. Talking to himself, humming, he scurries up ladders and retrieves huge scrapbooks, which he places on the floor, hunkers down, and examines with delight. While his finger trails up and down the pages he says, "Yes! YES!"

Catching himself he says, "I'm probably boring you. I'm sorry."

He leaps to his feet and opens another file. The drawer is filled with stuff about none other than Professor Mack. There is an item about the time he met Bob Hope. There is lots of stuff about Frank Lloyd Wright.

Perhaps America's most famous architect, Wright designed the Florida Southern campus. Professor Mack knew him well. People always ask him what the architect was like.

"Oh, he had a big ego, kind of like Tom Mack. He liked all conversation to be focused on his architecture. I, of course, was interested in plants. I liked planting plants. He did not like plants covering the walls of the buildings he was so very proud of. He used to knock down the bougainvillea with his cane.

"Oh, my goodness. What time is it? You're kidding! Talking about citrus, I lost all track. I've got an appointment. Sorry, I have to go."

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