PLANT CITY — Al Berry, who helped guide the Florida Strawberry Festival for more than four decades as one of its directors, has stepped down.
“I just feel like it's time. We need new blood. I've had a real good run at it,” said the 78-year-old Plant City native.
His last board meeting as a director was Tuesday.
During his tenure, the festival evolved from a local celebration that had risque sideshows on its midway to Plant City's signature event. It was first held in 1930.
Festival general manager Paul Davis said Berry's leadership will be missed. Berry served longer than any other director.
“I don't know of anyone who works harder for the festival and the community than Al Berry,” Davis said. “His enthusiasm is contagious.”
Berry, a velvet-voiced former radio broadcaster, has helped spark the festival's growth, including doubling its duration to 11 days. The festival also added big-name entertainers, starting with an appearance by Dale Evans, wife of cowboy actor Roy Rogers.
The festival stage has grown in prestige and now hosts some of country music's top entertainers, such as Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift.
“The festival has just taken off. I'm proud of what it's become,” he said.
His early tenure included helping deal with a controversy about midway acts featuring women shedding most of their clothes.
“We'd had girlie shows for years at the festival but local pastors got together to protest. There was such an uproar that the board eventually got rid of them,” he said.
The festival now boasts of its family friendly atmosphere. Berry served as president two years in the 1990s.
Berry said he will keep a finger on the pulse of the festival as a director emeritus. And one role he won't give up is donning a suit as the festival's mascot, Mr. Berry, who often greets visitors as they enter the main gate.
Berry attended Texas Western College and the University of Tampa before beginning a broadcasting career in 1956 with WFLA radio. For 25 years, he co-owned a radio station in Plant City.
Berry was active as a festival volunteer before he became a director 43 years ago. Festival board members are not paid.
Retired city manager Phil Waldron, who has been an associate director for 16 years, will take Berry's place on the board. Associate directors and directors emeritus don't have voting privileges.
Waldron, who owns Waldron Consulting, a planning and development firm, said he “really can't take Al's place, because Al can't be replaced.”
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