(April 22) SALINAS, Calif. — It was more than 60 years ago that an enthusiastic young runner from Brooklyn made his way west.

To hear Dave Stidolph tell it, he packed a bag and hitchhiked across several time zones to take advantage of a cross-country running scholarship.

But whether Stidolph came west by thumb or rail, by bus or car, when he set out from Brooklyn he started on a path that eventually would lead to vacuum-cooled lettuce, air-shipped strawberries, packaged broccoli crowns and a couple of generations of produce people he mentored.

Stidolph’s path came to an end April 18 in Monterey County, where he had devoted much of his life to encouraging people to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. He was 80.

“Dave was as unique an individual as I’ve ever known,” said Don Nucci, co-chairman of Mann Packing Co. Inc., where Stidolph devoted much of his creative talent in the past quarter century.

At Mann Packing, he’s remembered as the father of the broccoli floret.

Mann primarily was a frozen foods supplier a quarter of a century ago, the last time the Produce Marketing Association had its convention in Phoenix. Stidolph already had been consulting for the company about a dozen years by that point.

At that PMA convention, foodservice operators asked how produce suppliers could better serve them, and a light bulb appeared above Stidolph’s head.

“Dave went and researched with foodservice operations and saw what they did locally and how we could do it here for them,” Nucci said. “He’d go, come back and ask what percentage of the business he was accounting for, and I’d say just a fraction. Now it’s over half our business.”

Stidolph, who was named Produce Man of the Year in 1992 by The Packer, worked full time as director of foodservice for Mann Packing from about 1980 until his semiretirement 20 years later.

Before joining Mann and after cutting back his work schedule a few years ago, Stidolph consulted for Mann and many other companies.

After doing graduate work at Washington State University, Stidolph taught at Hartnell College in the 1950s. But it was produce that had his heart, and it was in developing catchy and creative ways of marketing and promoting fresh fruits and vegetables that Stidolph found some of his greatest successes.

Among his accomplishments early in his career, Stidolph helped develop vacuum cooling for lettuce shipping with the Bruce Church Co. and helped Salinas Strawberry — the first large strawberry company in the valley — to ship berries by air.
Once, when labor got tight as the bracero program came to an end, Stidolph flew to New Mexico to bring Navajos up to work the Salinas Valley.

But that comes as no surprise to anyone who knew him.

“Dave was a great educator,” said Patty Boman, marketing director for Bakersfield-based Grimmway Farms. “With Dave, everything was a lesson. He took great pride in being a coach and an educator and a mentor.”

Boman met him in the early 1990s when the two created a coloring book promoting broccoli and carrots.

But being a good mentor did not make Stidolph easygoing.

He stimulated creativity in those around him, but when he thought they could do better, he told them flat out.

“He always said exactly what he thought,” said Joe Nucci, president of Mann Packing. “When I first started working here part time in college, I worked for him. He described me as his sorcerer’s apprentice.”

Stidolph had a look that would cross his face whenever someone didn’t meet his exacting expectations, Boman said.

“He was a straight shooter, there’s no doubt about that,” she said. “But on the other side of it, he was always willing to listen.”

Don Nucci said he was glad all four of his children were able to grow up to work with Stidolph.

“Dave never told you what you wanted to hear. He told you what he thought,” Don Nucci said. “I told my kids, he’ll drive you crazy, but he’ll teach you a lot.”

As Stidolph sped through life, he infected those around him with enthusiasm and creativity. He could be blunt, but he could be funny. Stidolph could tell stories like you wouldn’t believe, but chances are, they would be true. And his greatest passion, his favorite discussion subject, was produce.

“We were going to a show in Bakersfield one time, and I told him Dave, ‘I'll ride down with you, but you can’t talk produce,’” Don Nucci said with a laugh. “We made it to Chualar.”

That’s five minutes into a four-hour drive.

“We talked produce the rest of the way,” Don Nucci said. “He was one of those unique industry pioneers.”

Stidolph is survived by his three children: Marilyn McMurray and Michael Stidolph, both of Prunedale, and Joanne Lake of Renton, Wash.

A celebration ceremony is scheduled for May 1 at Harbor Chapel in Moss Landing. The family asks that memorial contributions be made to Monterey County Ag Education, P.O. Box 7461, Spreckels, CA 93962.