FROSTPROOF – Ben Hill Griffin III, 78, died peacefully at his Frostproof home on Saturday.
Across the Heartland and the state, Griffin was known as a giant in the citrus and agriculture industries. He was well known as a businessman, a philanthropist and a champion for higher education.
Griffin was the only son out of five children of Ben Griffin Jr. and L. Frances Griffin and was born on March 3, 1942, in Lake Wales. Griffin was a Frostproof High School athlete and class president for years before graduating.
After graduating, Griffin attended the University of Florida, but eventually graduated from Central Florida Community College with an Associates in Arts (AA) degree. He also served in the Florida Army National Guard.
Griffin learned the agriculture business from the ground up. He did manual labor in orange groves and rounded up cattle on horseback while he was still in grade school, according to the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame. He learned well from his father, a well-known citrus grower and state legislator. Griffin III joined his father as an inductee in 2010.
Eventually, Griffin earned the keys to the Ben Hill Griffin, Inc. and was the chairman of the board and Chief Executive Officer. He was also the former chairman of the board and CEO of ALICO from 1990-2004. Griffin diversified and expanded the company.
Griffin's colleagues respected him and were inspired by him.
“He was a Florida icon within several segments of the state's culture, both agriculturally and philanthropically, educational-wise,” Executive Director of the Highlands Citrus Growers Association Ray Royce said. “I think he obviously leaves a lasting legacy for an example of how we should all try to provide leadership in whatever arenas that we have the opportunity that we have to do so. He will certainly be missed.”
Royce said he was involved in politics and encouraging education. Griffin donated 1,000-acres of land where Florida Gulf Coast University would be built.
As head of Alico, he had the company donate $5 million dollars for the Alico Arena on FGCU's property. Griffin Hall at FGCU is named after the citrus giant. Griffin established endowments and several scholarships to Florida schools.
FGCU officials said the flag would be flown at half-mast until midnight on Friday to honor Griffin.
Royce said the industry will have some big shoes to fill in Griffin's absence.
“It was a life well lived,” Royce said. “He has influenced a lot of people, myself included, that will say, 'hey, we now have to pick up that torch and continue to move forward' — and in some small way, collectively, try to fill the void he leaves behind.”
Griffin is said to have been true to his hometown roots while improving things around the state at the same time. Chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission Ned Hancock was a colleague of Griffin's whom held him in high esteem.
'It seemed to me that he (Griffin) had great foresight and his timing was also good,” Hancock said. “He knew when to diversify and when to make certain moves that enabled him to take advantage of a changing economy in Florida both with Ben Hill Griffin, Inc. and when he headed up Alico.”
Hancock said he had a knack for knowing which direction to turn to.
“He stayed true to his heart, he was a citrus grower and rancher at heart,” Hancock said, “He continued to look at other ventures and he made some tough decisions to things he probably did not want to do.”
Hancock gave the example of shutting his fresh fruit packing house and said it was a difficult but necessary decision.
“It seemed like he had the ability to lead but still follow,” Hancock said.
Hancock said that with all Griffin's success, he was also gave back to communities all over the state.
“He took to heart, 'To whom much is given, much is expected,’” Hancock said. “I think Mr. Griffin wanted to provide as many opportunities to as many people as he could. I think his employees would say that as well.”
Griffin held leadership positions on numerous boards, including hospitals and banks, and he was a chairman of the Florida Citrus Commission. He was inducted into the Florida Agriculture Citrus Hall of Fame, Florida Citrus Hall of Fame in 2009 and Frostproof High School Hall of Fame in 2010, among many other accolades and accomplishments.
Lee County's Tree Line Drive was renamed Ben Hill Griffin Parkway in gratitude for his work with FGCU. Griffin was a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Frostproof.