Al Berry was known by many as the voice of Plant City. His unabating legacy will continue to reshape his hometown for decades to come.
Years before Alfred ‘Al’ Berry became the host of the beloved WPLA show “This’n That,” using his smooth
voice and lively personality to engage members of the town in a humorous two-hour conversation, he was a child playing with a Radio Teletype sending Morse code signals out to the world.
Even at a young age, his friends were drawn to his unbending moral compass and affectionate personality. Ray Crum remembers the day he and Berry began their unwavering friendship. They were sitting in Ms. Smith’s seventh grade English class discussing Berry’s paper route when Crum said he realized this was someone he was going to be friends with for the rest of his life.
“Sometimes when you meet people you just like them right away,” Crum said. “Al was just an exceptional individual. He was honest and had this great personality, he could sell Eskimos icebergs and that sort of thing… I feel a great loss for Al. It’s a sad time, but I think we’ve all benefitted from Al being with us and I think we’re all blessed that the good Lord let us all share in his life.”
After graduating Plant City High School in 1953, Berry spent a year in El Paso serving in the Air Force, going to college and working on the Mexican border. He soon returned home where he attended the University of Tampa and began working at the college radio station.
Backed with the skills he learned in school, he landed a job at WFLA where he worked from noon until
midnight each weekend. Five years after he walked across the stage to receive his high school diploma he returned to start crafting what would become one of the most cherished radio networks in the area.
While at WPLA in the heart of Plant City, he and Ercelle Smith brought “This’n That” into the households of nearly every resident in town. Its success lasted for more than 20 years and raised innumerable funds for local charities and organizations. One of Berry’s favorite memories from his radio days was raising more than $30,000 for a local child with leukemia.
Jim Malloy, who worked with Berry for years at WPLA, said if there was a Tampa Bay radio hall of fame Berry would be an automatic inductee. He taught
Malloy everything he knows about the business and did it all with a smile.
“In my opinion, he was Mr. Plant City,” Malloy said. “He represented what Plant City was all about. Having the name Berry didn’t hurt. He was the perfect representative for the town, the Strawberry Festival and this community. He will be missed… He was just a legend.”
Following the sale of the station, Berry found new and innovative ways to pour into the town he held so dear. He served on the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce, worked with the then local Paso Fino Horse Association, was heavily involved in the Plant City Lions Club, the Dover Civic Club, the Plant City Photo Archives and more.
His deep love for the Florida Strawberry Festival is inarguably one of his most noteworthy attributes. Paul Davis, president of the Florida Strawberry Festival, said anytime he travels to a news station across Tampa Bay he is always asked about Berry.
He worked relentless hours coming up with new promotion strategies, volunteering to be Mr. Berry (the Florida Strawberry Festival mascot) during the festival, attending meetings and helping build the festival to its current glory. Nearly any conversation with Berry would somehow wind up back at the festival, which he felt was the embodiment of the city’s unique roots and classic charm.
“He was always thinking and he would sit in my office and talk about all the things we’re doing and what we could do better and what the best way was to do it, and he would always talk about his family and how proud he was,” Davis said. “He bragged on every single one of his children and his grandchildren. When his granddaughter graduated nursing school he came in and said, ‘I’ve got to tell you the good news.’ He always talked about his family.”
Berry met his wife Patsy while singing in the choir at First Baptist Church of Plant City. They were married for 60 years and had three daughters, Kellie Corry, Lori DeMello and Karen Berry. His family was his top priority and there was never a day he wasn’t checking in on his loved ones.
Festival Board Chairperson Sandee Sytsma said Berry’s love for everyone he met made him one of the most cherished citizens to ever come from Plant City. She said his “face would light up a room” and his positive attitude was infectious.
Like her father, she said Berry put little worth on titles and influence. Anyone who had a good moral character was someone they both felt worthy of their time and devotion. Everywhere he went he was recognized, turning what should have been brief lunch meetings into drawn-out affairs as he greeted nearly every person in the room.
“He had a knack of making everybody feel like they’re his best friend, so he must’ve had 400 best friends just here in town,” Sytsma said. “He was a gift. He made you feel special. He will be missed. He was loved by all and he loved all.”
His steadfast honesty and easy-going spirit quickly gave him the reputation of being a “true Southern gentleman.” Mayor Rick Lott said it was such an honor to be able to give Berry a proclamation for his “exemplary leadership and untiring efforts in community service” on Sept. 22, 2014, after watching and learning under “Mr. Plant City” his entire life.
“Al Berry was the face of Plant City, he was the voice of Plant City, he was Mr. Plant City,” Lott said.
His fun-loving personality never abated. One year, Berry filmed Lott for the annual chairman’s banquet. He jokingly said he wanted to show the “type of leadership” the Chamber would provide over the next year under Lott, so he had Lott literally ride a donkey backward through downtown. Lott said he could never tell Berry no, so he went along with the joke, much to everyone’s amusement.
Mac Smith, former Florida Strawberry Festival president, said Berry would command a room anytime he spoke. His experience, expertise and confident spirit made him a figure the festival and this town will miss for years to come.
Whenever Smith had to miss a meeting, Berry was the only board member he wholeheartedly trusted enough to grant his proxy to. He said he and Berry had the same philosophies and he trusted him without hesitation to vote the way Smith would want.
To this day, if you call businesses around town you may still hear Berry’s voice. He did the recordings for organizations like the Florida Strawberry Festival, city commissioners and local businesses.
His kindness and his genuine affability will be his legacy. The lives he impacted while serving his community are countless and the lessons he imparted on everyone he met will ripple through Plant City’s residents for decades to come.
“Al was an outgoing person, I just don’t think he had an enemy in the world,” Smith said. He always was happy to promote other people and to take a back seat if he needed to. I’m really going to miss him, I really am.”