(Dec. 8) James Richard Graves Jr., 68, was known for his dignity, optimism and strength, and even in his final months battling cancer, he refused to lose hope, said Dan Richey, chief executive officer of Vero Beach, Florida Fla.-based Riverfront Packing Co.

Graves, former president and chief executive officer of Wabasso, Fla.-based Graves Bros. Co., died on Nov. 28 from a cancer-related illness, said Jeff Bass, president and chief executive officer of Graves Bros. and Graves’ nephew.

“I learned a lot from him watching him fight that disease,” Richey said. “It was never a ‘why me?’ The largest impact he had on me was watching the man handle adversity in life from a physical ailment and the way in which he handled it.”

Richey met Graves when Graves was president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and Graves encouraged Richey — who was new to the citrus industry — to join Leadership Florida, a chamber-sponsored program boasting the “who’s who” of Florida, he said.

Upon Graves’ advice, Richey joined, and it ultimately made the difference in his career, he said.

“He took me under his wing and suggested I should become part of it (Leadership Florida),” Richey said. “I will be forever thankful to him for that. It really opened up a lot of doors for me.”

Graves joined family-owned-and-operated Graves Bros. — which presently consists of a citrus fruit packing facility and more than 7,200 acres of citrus orchards — in 1969, switching from a job as a certified public accountant. He started running the harvesting operation and during the next 30 years, proceeded to serve as secretary and treasurer from 1969-85, president from 1985-93 and chief executive officer from 1993-98, Bass said.

Graves Bros. was founded in 1895 in Alabama by Graves’ grandfather and great uncle as a sawmill and lumber company. They also had sawmills in northwest Florida and Wabasso, and in 1915, the firm moved to Wabasso, where they began planting citrus and vegetable crops on land formerly occupied by timber, according to the Graves Bros.’ Web site.

Graves had a vast understanding of the citrus market and established a deserving reputation for himself, both domestically and internationally, throughout his tenure in the business, said Stan Carter, Graves’ lifelong friend, division manager for Port St. Lucie, Fla.-based McArthur Farms and president of the Vero Beach-based Indian River Citrus League.

He was an industry-minded individual whose citrus knowledge and influence extended way beyond the Florida borders, said Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland.

“He has been a stalwart of the industry, and Graves Bros. has been an institution in the citrus industry and Indian River for decades,” Stuart said.

Graves was president of the Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Packers in 1978 and a member of the Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Commission from 1980-83. He served on the board of directors for the Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Mutual from 1978-81 and for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association from 1982-84 and was the association’s chairman in 1987 and treasurer from 1992-96, Bass said.