Tom Stenzel (left), along with United Fresh chairwoman Susan Reimer-Sifford, presents the 2018 United Fresh Lifetime Achievement Award to H-E-B’s Hugh Topper. ( Greg Johnson )

SAN DIEGO — Hugh Topper has always struggled to break free from a reputation pinned on him in high school — that of being a “very nice boy.”

The recently retired group vice president of fresh foods of H-E-B Grocery Co. was honored with United Fresh’s 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award Jan. 16 in San Diego at United Fresh’s mid-winter meeting.

Topper worked for the Texas grocery chain for 26 years and spent time volunteering for many produce industry groups, including the United Fresh Produce Association, Produce Marketing Association, Produce for Better Health Foundation and the Texas International Produce Association.

His friend and president of the San Antonio division of H-E-B, Suzanne Wade, said at the gala dinner that when she first met Topper upon joining the retailer 20 years ago, she realized she knew of him from growing up in the same small Oklahoma town of Holdenville. She said when she told her mother whom she’d just met at work, her mom’s first words were, “He’s such a nice boy!”

Wade said in addition to being nice, Topper was an excellent leader, set tough goals and worked with co-workers to achieve those goals.

Another friend, Robert Colescott, president of Southern Specialties, said Topper understood relationships and partnerships, which grew everyone’s business.

Topper said it’s really an honor for his whole staff at H-E-B.

“It’s incredible, looking at the list of past winners, to join that group,” he said, referring to past honorees such as Frieda Caplan, Joe Procacci and Rick and Tonya Antle.

Topper said he officially retired Jan. 12, but he began consulting with H-E-B Jan. 15, so he’s easing his way out of the industry.

The gala dinner was a fundraiser for the United Fresh Start Foundation, and a silent and live auction raised $95,000 that night, United Fresh disclosed.