(March 29) Jim Connell — who spent 41 years at The Packer, including six as publisher — died of cancer March 27 in Kansas City, Mo. He was 87.

“He was a great leader,” said Bill Coon, who worked with Connell for more than 35 years and succeeded him as publisher of The Packer in 1973. “He was a great boss, and most of all a great friend.”

Connell earned a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and served the U.S. Navy as an officer in the Pacific during World War II.

After returning to the states, he joined The Packer as a field man in 1947 and later became an administrative assistant to publisher George H. Gurley. He moved up to sales manager and general manager before becoming publisher in 1967.

Connell wasted little time leaving his mark on the newspaper, shifting The Packer’s production from an old hot metal printing plant to a modern offset plant. The change allowed the paper to use more color and add sections.

In 1968, The Grower magazine was launched as a spinoff of The Packer, which also in that year expanded to international coverage as the industry began to globalize. During Connell’s tenure, The Packer also developed national sales accounts, including packaging and film companies.

“My dad loved the produce industry with his whole heart and soul,” said Keith Connell, owner of Keith Connell Inc., a produce brokerage and distributor in Stilwell, Kan. “He knew the industry, not just the publishing business. He took it to heart, and that’s why he was so good.”

Connell served as president of the National Agri-Marketing Association in 1976-77 and also was an advocate for the Produce Prepackaging Association, which evolved into the Produce Marketing Association.

PMA later honored Connell for 35 years of service to the industry, but he wasn’t done yet. Connell continued to move up the ranks, becoming vice president and publishing director for the agricultural division of parent company Vance Publishing.

In 1980, Connell, Coon and then-Packer editor Paul Campbell split the editorial and sales functions of The Packer staff and added more editors and reporters. Connell was named Vance’s senior vice president in 1983 and retired in 1988.

Connell is survived by his wife Florence; sons Elliott, Keith and Kevin; daughter Connie Fahey; 11 grandchildren and eight great grandchildren. His grandchildren include Keith’s sons, Jimmy and Danny Connell, who work in the Nogales, Ariz., office of Keith Connell Inc.

“He loved his wife and family, and he truly valued all his friendships,” Keith Connell said. “That was his big point. He taught us all that.”

Connell’s funeral was scheduled for March 31 in Kansas City, Mo.