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Thursday, Sep 20, 2018
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Plant City’s champion Al Berry, whose name shouted his passion, dead at 83

His name was Berry and berry was his passion — the strawberry that put his beloved Plant City on the map.

Alfred "Al" Berry was born with the name, but he took on his role as chief promoter of Plant City through his four decades of work with the community’s signature Strawberry Festival. He helped grow it from a local celebration with risque sideshows to an 11-day day extravaganza featuring top national entertainers.

Mr. Berry died Monday from a heart condition, at home in his native Plant City. He was 83.

He used every means at his disposal to promote the festival — the microphone he held as radio host on station WPLA-AM, the contacts he made selling ads for the station, the festival stickers he slapped with a smile on people he met, and the bright red Mr. Berry costume he would don for photos with visitors.

"He wanted everybody that came here to have a great time," said Paul Davis, president of the event since 2008. "That’s what really set the festival apart."

Mr. Berry was born April 28, 1935, five years after the festival was founded. He grew up meeting everyone resident and visitor he could, in part through his work as general manager and then co-owner of WPLA, and through his morning show, This and That.

"Berry was an icon in Plant City," said J. Myrle Henry, a friend and retired pharmacist. "Everyone knew him, and he knew everybody.

Mr. Berry would wake up long before sunrise to pull on the bulky Mr. Berry costume, 10 to 12 times during each festival, recalled Karen Berry, one of his three children. He would broadcast the festival’s parade live on the radio from a platform along the parade route and pull his youngest daughter up beside him.

"As kids growing up, we couldn’t wait for it to start," Karen Berry said.

Festival time meant all the food, rides and entertainment that Mr. Berry helped create. That included the move in the early 1970s to lure big-name acts.

It started with Dale Evans, half of the cowboy singing couple Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, said Henry, who cooked up the plan with Mr. Berry while they were members of the Lion’s Club.

Roy Rogers had a prior commitment but Berry threw a spirited news conference at the city’s Suntrust Bank for the Dale Evans appearance. It was probably Plant City’s first news conference, Henry said, and her visit was a hit.

"Nothing like this had ever been done before," he said.

Next was singer Pat Boone, and a tradition was born. Through the years, the festival has featured acts on their way to the peak of stardom, including Taylor Swift, who now plays venues like Raymond James Stadium.

The March 2018 Strawberry Festival lineup included Lee Greenwood, Reba McEntire, Josh Turner, Gaither Vocal Band, Casting Crowns, Earth, Wind and Fire, Brad Paisley and Chase Bryant.

The concert venue with its bright red seats, the Wish Farms Soundstage, was expanded in recent years and now towers over the midway and the exhibit halls with their strawberry-shortcake vendors.

Davis called Mr. Berry a promotion "innovator" who always had something for the news cameras to shoot. Quick-witted and articulate, his Southern charm helped set him apart.

Davis figures Mr. Berry donned the costume of Mr. Berry for 18 years, the last time when he was 80 in 2016.

"He was larger-than-life in that thing," Davis said. "He enjoyed it, and the kids loved it."

Mr. Berry’s early tenure with the festival included helping deal with a controversy about midway acts featuring women shedding most of their clothes. The festival board eventually banned them. The alcohol- and smoke-free event now boasts of its family-friendly atmosphere.

Mr. Berry’s roots in Plant City ran deep. He was born in the city and graduated from Plant City High School. His sister was city manager. He met his wife, Patsy, in the choir of Plant City’s First Baptist Church, and they were married for 60 years.

A former president of the festival, he stepped down from the board in 2014, but up until last week was calling with ideas and things he wanted to see done, Davis said.

An Air Force veteran who attended the University of Tampa, he served on the boards of a number of local organizations. Mr. Berry was named Plant City’s Citizen of the Year in 1998.

His name was just right for the chief promoter of a community that produces a quarter-billion dollars in strawberries each year, making them Hillsborough County’s top crop. But that’s not what inspired him, daughter Karen Berry said.

"He loved Plant City. He loved the people, and he wanted to promote the city."

The family plans to hand out Mr. Berry’s signature Strawberry Festival stickers during his memorial service Saturday in Plant City.

Alfred "Al" Berry

Born: April 28, 1935

Died: June 18, 2018

Survivors: Wife Patsy Davidson Berry; daughters, Kellie Lee Corry (Craig), Lori DeMello (Raul), and Karen Berry; grandchildren Cliff Brown (Crystal), Kelsie Corry, Kylie Fox (Bradley), and Ryan DeMello; four great-grandchildren.

Services: Visitation 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, June 22, and funeral 11 a.m. Saturday, June 23, both at First Baptist Church in Plant City. Committal with military honors at Hopewell Memorial Gardens, Plant City.

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