Frieda Caplan taught her daughters to treat all visitors at Frieda’s as if they were the company’s biggest client or grower, daughter Karen Caplan at her mother's celebration of life service on Feb. 22 The service drew hundreds of family, friends and produce industry leaders. ( Tom Burfield )

LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. — Trailblazer, activist, mentor and marketing genius were a few of roles used to characterize produce industry icon Frieda Rapoport Caplan at a celebration of life.

The founder in 1962 of the nation’s first woman-owned wholesale produce company, Frieda’s Finest/Produce Specialties Inc. — now Los Alamitos-based Frieda’s Inc. — died Jan. 18 at 96, and hundreds of friends, family members and produce industry colleagues gathered Feb. 22 to reminisce, share stories and bid farewell to the Kiwi Queen.

Marty Craner, owner of B&C Fresh Sales, Orange, Calif., called Caplan “the matriarch of the produce family” and shared some things she learned from her over their 40-year acquaintanceship.

Caplan had the strength of her convictions and knew what was right and what was wrong, Craner said, yet she remained respectful and nonjudgmental.

Caplan was a curious person, a lifelong learner and had a “sense of positivity,” she said.

“You don’t get to be 96 years old without a lot of challenges in life. Yet Frieda was always a glass half-full gal.”

Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the Irvine-based California Avocado Commission, called Caplan “one of those once-in-a-lifetime people.”

“We are all better for having known her and having her in our lives,” she said.

“Frieda was a trailblazer — not only a champion of women helping women, but she also had a measurable impact on men she worked with.”

DeLyser recounted how Caplan walked the produce market, always wearing a dress and often with such notables as TV’s Al Roker or Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.

Cathy Burns, Produce Marketing Association CEO, said that while Caplan was recognized for introducing new produce items to the market, “she took equal, if not greater delight in really unlocking the potential in people.”

When she first met Caplan, Burns said, she didn’t make her feel like the most important person in the room, “she made me feel like I was the only person in the room.”

PMA’s Center for Growing Talent presented Caplan with its Women’s Catalyst Award in October.

Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association, was one of several speakers who pointed out that Caplan was quick to adapt to the new e-mail technology and was prone to sending out her missives at any time of the day or night.

Stenzel shared some advice that he said Caplan never verbalized, “but it’s probably the most important thing she shared:”

“Be passionate about your work, love your family, make as many friends as you can, live life to the fullest, make a difference.”

Family members gave some revelations about Caplan. 

“She couldn’t cook,” said daughter Jackie Caplan Wiggins, vice president and chief operating officer at Frieda’s. “And she did not know how to do laundry.”

Frieda Caplan served as “get-away driver” during toilet-papering adventures with Jackie and her sister Karen Caplan, now president and CEO of Frieda’s, during their high-school years.

“She was a kid at heart and loved to be part of the action,” Jackie Caplan Wiggins said.

Frieda Caplan taught her daughters to treat all visitors at Frieda’s as if they were the company’s biggest client or grower, Karen Caplan said.

Making connections with people was her mother’s superpower, she added, and she saw the positive in every situation.

“For more than 42 years, I basically spent every single day with my mom,” Karen Caplan said.

Granddaughter Alex Berkley, director of sales at Frieda’s, said Caplan “was everyone’s grandma.”

She said her grandmother is not really gone.

“She’s right here. I just can’t touch her, talk to her or visit her, but I can see her,” Berkley said.

Granddaughter Sophia Jackson, who cared for Frieda Caplan for more than three years, said Frieda brought the family together.

Grandson Franklin Wiggins compared her to the fictional nanny Mary Poppins and that she was gentle, cheerful and “filled so many hearts with the magic of her presence.”

Granddaughter Rachel Wiggins said “she knew that encouraging rather than tearing each other down was the only way to succeed in this world.”

Speakers shared stories before a wall decorated with flowers interspersed with Caplan’s adages, including “When everyone zigs, zag,” “Normal is boring” and “Refuse to be ordinary.”

The celebration included clips from the 2015 documentary “Fear No Fruit” that traces her career and a “CBS Sunday Morning” feature that aired in January.

Although she is known for familiarizing Americans with kiwifruit, she told correspondent Rita Braver that she introduced more than 200 items to U.S. consumers.

Those products included Sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes), dragon fruit, jicama and Stokes Purple sweet potatoes.  

One clip showed Caplan’s acceptance speech for her honorary doctorate from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where she told students, “Be politically active, vote, speak up (and) don’t sit silently by.”

Besides her produce career, Caplan was an outspoken activist and supported numerous civic and philanthropic causes.

Speakers representing philanthropies and organizations were:

  • Christi Wilkins, executive director of Dramatic Results, which offers arts-based programs for children;
  • Julie Newcomb Hill, International Women’s Forum member and chairwoman of the University of California-Irvine Foundation board of trustees; 
  • Joshua Grill, director of the Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders, UCI Mind at the University of California-Irvine;
  • Jennifer Keller, a supporter of Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties, a regional board member of the Anti-Defamation League and member of the International Women’s Forum; and
  • Melissa Carr, former regional director, Anti-Defamation League of Orange County/Long Beach.

Serving as masters of ceremonies were Gustavo Arellano, features writer of the Los Angeles Times; and Kevin Coupe, founder of MorningNewsBeat.com.

“In the end, she made the ultimate donation to support science,” said Grill of the University of California-Irvine. “She donated her brain to our research.”
 

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