Plant City is as the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World.
Lester Wishnatzki is a big reason why.
After growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Mr. Wishnatzki began working for the family business in the late 1930s, along with his brother, Joe.
When their father and Wishnatzki & Nathel co-founder Harris Wishnatzki died in 1955, Mr. Wishnatzki and Joe took over the Plant City-based family produce business, which eventually became Wish Farms.
The brothers represented the second generation in the business. Their father started the company under humble beginnings in New York City after emigrating in 1900, from Russia.
Mr. Wishnatzki, 96, died May 19, from age-related causes. He is survived by his two daughters, Elinor and Susan.
After the Wishnatzki brothers took over the company after the operation moved to Plant City, they became a driving force for the company and helped push the growing strawberry industry in the region. Mr. Wishnatzki ran the company with his father, while Joe and another brother, Earnest, served during World War II.
“Lester and my dad were both mentors for me and taught me about the family business,” said current Wish Farms owner Gary Wishnatzki, Joe’s son and Lester’s nephew.
Gary Wishnatzki began working for the company in 1974, and worked for Mr. Wishnatzki when he ran the Webster Packinghouse.
“The thing that I probably learned the most from my uncle was the proper way of dealing with customers and growers,” Gary Wishnatzki said. “He taught me the right way to speak with people and always was very transparent when he worked with me over the years. For that, I’m indebted to him.”
Mr. Wishnatzki was one of the first in the industry to use mechanical refrigeration in packinghouses and trucks.
“Back in the early days, there was no mechanical refrigeration when shipping,” Gary Wishnatzki said. “Railcars would have to stop to fill up on ice and have fans blow cold air on the produce. To my knowledge, my dad and uncle were one of the first in the area to use refrigeration packing.”
As much as he will be remembered for his work in establishing what Wish Farms is today, many remember Mr. Wishnatzki for his work outside of the crops.
He and his late wife, Selma, were involved in local organizations in the Plant City and Lakeland areas.
“The thing that I think was passed down to my dad and then to me was his generosity,” Gary Wishnatzki’s daughter, Elizabeth Peterson, said. “He would do anything to help someone.”
Contributions Mr. Wishnatzki and his wife made benefited Lakeland Regional Cancer Center, the Polk Museum of Art, the Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine Clinic, Central Florida Speech and Hearing and Volunteers in Service to the Elderly, and more. The Wishnatzkis were named the Philanthropists of the Year in 2001, by Lakeland Regional Medical Center. In 2009, Mr. Wishnatzki received a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, honorary degree from Florida Southern College, where he was a donor.
Lester also will be remembered for his love of friends and family.
“Family meant a lot to him,” Gary Wishnatzki said.
Gary Wishnatzki described him as “the life of the party,” saying he loved throwing and attending shindigs. He remained active in the family business well through his 80s before slowing down in his 90s.
Naturally, Gary Wishnatzki called Mr. Wishnatzki “Uncle Lester,” but it didn’t take long before others would refer to him by the same title.
“That’s how people knew him — as Uncle Lester,” he said. “As Uncle Lester.”
Mr. Wishnatzki was the primary caregiver for Selma when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and took care of her until she died 10 years ago.
“His ability to help people says a lot about who he was as a person and I think that transparency has reflected on other generations in the family,” Peterson said.
Contact Matt Mauney at [email protected].