COLUMBUS, Ohio — Friends, family, employees and competitors paid their last respects to a legend in Ohio produce distribution on Oct. 21.

Joseph A. Mercurio, 85, died of congestive heart failure shortly before midnight Oct. 17.

Mercurio founded the third-generation family-owned Joseph Mercurio Produce Corp. in 1970.

His legacy will live on through his generosity to his workers.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in the produce industry that didn’t know him,” said Dan Hoops, Mercurio general manager and a 15-year employee.

“We all called him ‘Pop.’ Everyone in the warehouse called him ‘Pop.’”

Mercurio had battled cancer earlier in the decade and recently had heart bypass surgery, colleagues say.

Workers say Mercurio’s death was unexpected, since he visited the office daily and had last come into work a couple of days before he died. Semiretired, he remained Mercurio’s chairman of the board.

A week ago, Mercurio was seen giving pumpkins to visiting children, Hoops said.

“Pop was always more than willing to talk with the kids of employees or customers,” he said. “Everyone that came in always brought their kids to see him. It will be tough to go to work every day seeing his office light off and him not there.”

Industry leaders praised Mercurio for the family’s business reputation.

“He was a true legend,” said Rick Antle, chief executive officer of Salinas, Calif.-based Tanimura & Antle Inc. “I was very fortunate to be able to experience as a young man growing up in the industry, the whole wholesale aspect of the business. The Mercurio family has been the steward of produce in the Columbus area over the years. We have been honored to have had them represent our products over the years. I wish Joe Jr. and the rest of the family and his wife condolences.”

Ron Geragi, president of All American Farms Inc., Boca Raton, Fla., who has sold vegetables and melons to the Mercurio family for 18 years, characterized the produce entrepreneur as a man of integrity who was honest, hard-working and dedicated to doing whatever it took to deliver the best produce on-time.

“He was quite an individual,” Geragi said. “His death will be a terrible loss to the produce industry for a man of his stature and the effort he put forth in building his company.”

Mercurio is survived by his wife, Mildred; daughter Midgie Mercurio, the company’s pay-roll manager; and son Joseph M. Mercurio, company president and chief executive officer; a granddaughter; a great-granddaughter; and many nieces and nephews.

“He valued his employees tremendously and wanted to leave a legacy for them,” said An-thony Mar, owner of AM Advisors, an Oakland, Calif., corporate transition adviser who worked with the Mercurios to change their family-owned produce business into an employee-owned company. “He had a love for his workers and all the people around him. He had a very generous heart.”

Joseph A. Mercurio wanted to give — not sell — his company to his workers through a fully funded employee stock ownership program that was completed in 2002, Mar said.

Mercurio, Mar said, had the foresight to look beyond his own life and assemble a plan to keep the company intact.

Reported to be one of the highest-paying area produce companies, Mercurio starts its driv-ers and warehouse workers at many of its competitors’ top pay, $8-10 an hour, Hoops said.

An employee profit sharing plan was capped at $1 million, Hoops said, before Mercurio added the employee stock ownership plan. Mercurio’s 54 workers now own just under half of the company, Mar said.

Joseph A. Mercurio’s father, Michael, an immigrant from Sicily, entered the produce indus-try by pushing a produce cart. He and his sons, Joseph A. Mercurio, John Mercurio and Mike Mercurio, worked together at Capital Foods Supply Co. during the 1930s until after the war, said Michael Dinovo, 83, former co-owner of Dinovo Bros. Inc., a competitor of Mercurio.

Ohioans say last farewell to ‘Pop’