I graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in June of 1966, and noticed in the school’s semi-weekly job listing report that The Packer was looking for an assistant editor. There was not much information about the job, but I assumed it was a meat-packing publication since Kansas City was known for its large meat companies.
Indeed, The Packer started out as a meat publication, but was now a weekly fruit and vegetable newspaper. It didn’t matter because I didn’t know much about either meat or fresh produce. My “vast experience” in the produce industry included working in a small grocery store in Tennessee, which had one eight-foot case of fruits and vegetables.
A couple of days after I mailed my application, Packer editor Bob Fiser (pronounced Fisher) phoned and offered to fly me from Memphis to Kansas City for an interview. I was hired and thus began my 52-year journalism career on September 1, 1966.
At the time, The Packer had a three-person editorial staff consisting of Fiser, myself and 62-year-old Bob Kelley, who formerly had worked for one of the Kansas City newspapers. His claim to fame was covering the Union Station Massacre in 1933 when gangster “Pretty Boy” Floyd and his buddies tried to free prisoner Frank Nash. This resulted in the deaths of four police officers and Nash.
The Packer offices were at 201 Delaware, near downtown Kansas City, Missouri, with the Red Book right across the street. The Packer was printed on a “hot metal” press at the Drover’s Journal building near the Kansas City Stockyards. Both The Packer and Drover’s Journal had been recently purchased by Vance Publishing Corporation, headquartered in Chicago.
During my first week at The Packer I visited a Kansas City broker who told me I was crazy to be in the produce industry, that all fruits and vegetables would soon be sold in processed form. Since he may have been the first member of the industry I ever talked with, this rookie wondered what the heck I was getting myself into. I planned to stay only a couple of years anyway to get some experience, then move on. However, I fell in love with the produce industry and instead stayed 18 years.
Jim Connell was the general manager at the time, and he tabbed me in October to be part of The Packer/RedBook entourage to attend the Produce Packaging Association convention at the Palmer House in Chicago. Yes, in case you’re wondering, the PPA later became the Produce Packaging and Marketing Association and still later the Produce Marketing Association. The PPA at that time was so small that you could literally walk around the entire exhibit area in five minutes. Of course, the PMA later grew into the industry’s largest and most influential association.
Actually, the Kansas City broker couldn’t have been more wrong -- a resurgence of the industry began to take place along about 1970 as many food gurus were promoting fresh fruits and vegetables as highly nutritious. Even the federal government issued guidelines recommending people eat more “fresh.” Produce has probably always been the most government-free agricultural industry, but in this case we were grateful to receive the official endorsement of the U.S. government.
In the meantime, the industry did its part. Both the U.S. and Canadian industries spent a lot more money on consumer promotion, and several large companies invested heavily in fresh produce. The Packer also played a major role as Connell and Bill Coon, both of whom eventually became publishers, constantly pushed the industry towards better merchandising. They were both highly respected by industry members -- actually were considered part of the industry itself.
Bob Fiser resigned less than a year after I arrived on the scene, and Gordon Davidson was hired to be the editor. In 1969 we started printing The Packer at the Sedalia Democrat in Sedalia, Missouri, which featured a brand-new offset press. This enabled us to have a lot more color in the paper, which was a major advantage since fruits and vegetables are so colorful. The Packer/Redbook also moved its offices in 1969 to One Gateway Center in Kansas City, Kansas.
Gordon Davidson was the new editor, and he maintained that position until 1972 when he resigned. I became the editor on January 1, 1973 and held that position until 1985. While at The Packer I was fortunate to be able to visit 44 states and nine foreign countries (including Hong Kong as a country).
One thing that I can flatly state is that I was the most musically entertaining editor in Packer history, and possibly in the history of journalism. That’s because I was the only musically entertaining editor.
It all started when I gave a speech at a meeting of the Produce Council of Southern California in Los Angeles. Afterwards, Ron Hughes, chairman of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association’s Merchandising Division, invited me to speak at the upcoming merchandising meeting at Newport Beach. I said I would, but asked him, “Can you get me a piano?” He was startled, but said yes.
I had been working on some songs relating to the produce industry such as “The Terminal Market Blues” to the tune of “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” and “It’s a Most Unusual Way (To Make a Living).” I sang and played the piano at the merchandising meeting, and Jack Wolfe, one of the leaders of the Canadian industry, asked me to do the same at the next annual meeting of the Canadian Fruit Wholesalers Association. Soon after, I also performed at meetings in Calgary and Vancouver.
In June of 1985 I resigned, and my wife Rebecca and I purchased The Platte County Citizen, a weekly newspaper in Platte City, Missouri. Many ideas that we used there I learned from The Packer and the produce industry.
Following 13 years at Platte City, I returned to Vance Publishing to become editor of a new magazine, Meat and Seafood Merchandising. In December of 2004 I became editor and general manager of the Buffalo Reflex, a weekly newspaper in Buffalo, Missouri. I retired from full-time work on May 31 but am still working on a part-time basis.
Moving the consumption needle higher