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From principal to fruit stand vendor

Published January 26, 2007


The man selling $4 buckets of grapefruits, oranges and tangerines out of his pickup truck on State Road 54 sure looks familiar.

Nah, can't be Mr. Allen.

Not principal Allen.

Look closer. It's him.

"Now I'm just retired," he said.

Ron Allen spent more than three decades teaching, coaching and administrating in the Hillsborough County school system, ending as principal of Chamberlain and then Gaither high schools. He left in 1993 to become associate commissioner of the Florida High School Athletic Association.

Allen, who grew up in Kansas and has lived with his wife in Lutz for years, retired from the FHSAA in 2003.

Then he saw an ad in the paper.

Five acres, it said. Cheap land in Hernando County, about a 40-minute drive up Interstate 75.

Allen was looking to buy some property as an investment, so he went to check it out.

He and his wife, Nancy, bought it - and then discovered 300 citrus trees on the land, which was strangled with overgrowth. It took the two of them a full year to clear out the weeds and vines and get it looking good.

Allen chatted up anybody who knew anything about citrus trees. He learned secrets about mowing and fertilizer. And he learned the hard way how to pick fruit. He first went at them with clippers - a big no-no. Then, once he learned you've got to pull off each fruit, one at a time, he did that wrong,too.

"You've got to twist it and snap your wrist," he said. "I was terrible at it at first."

He said if you don't snap it right, the "plug" of the stem in the fruit will come out and the whole thing will rot. He and Nancy had many buckets of rotten fruit.

Allen is in great shape - he still looks like an athlete and works out every day. He's 6-foot-3, weighs a solid 225. He hefts 16-pound buckets of fruit like they're empty. He has a shock of white hair, a deep tan and he sports Adidas sandals like the young fellows wear.

But he's 68 years old. And he's climbing up 20-foot ladders once a week to pick fruit - for a self-run business he doesn't make any money at, one he'll never make any money at and just hopes to break even.

"It's fun," he said. "There's no pressure. If I don't feel like selling, I don't."

He did fall about 10 feet off a ladder once and banged up his arm. Nancy now does a lot of the picking, he said, because she's a whole lot lighter and "more careful."

Allen doesn't think of all this as work. He makes it clear he's done "working." He said he truly, sincerely enjoys caring for his grove and selling his fruit. He likes the feeling of knowing he's giving someone a good, honest deal.

He has been selling fruit for three years now and keeps a meticulous journal of the day, time and amount people buy. Such patterns might be useful, he thought, but concluded there is "no rhyme or reason."

He also concluded there's no reason to come before noon, so he doesn't. He spends the mornings fishing and with his grandsons and sets up shop Thursday through Sunday, until about 4:30 p.m. He sits on a chair, under a green patio umbrella he rigged to his pickup.

In the shade, he reads thick books. He has read about computers and the Internet something he's trying to learn about. Some John Grisham and other fiction. But he really loves nonfiction. He's read about William Casey, the former CIA director. He read Blind Ambition, about the fall of Richard Nixon. But it's not all heavy - he read a biography on Johnny Cash. And he just finished a book about the Mississippi River, called The Mighty Mississippi.

When he puts the book down, he just watches the world go by for a while. The cars drive so fast and so dangerously. Allen thinks about the past - about how he used to be such a Type A person, very assertive, demanding and expecting excellence from himself and his staff.

He didn't spend much time with his two sons, and he wishes he could go back in time and fix any hurts or wrongs. He thinks about his grandsons and how maybe he can have some redemption with them, to be there for them the way he couldn't be for his boys.

"Age gives you perspective," he said as he leaned on his truck and grabbed a water bottle. He doused a clean rag with water and then set about to wiping the oranges, tangerines and grapefruit, one by one. He throws ones that aren't too pretty into what he calls an ugly bucket. He gives the uglies away to friends who have juicers.

A car pulled up, a potential customer, and he smiled and went into his sales pitch.

"Hello, what would you like, ma'am? I've got some tangerines. Here are some free samples if you'd like to try some. The grapefruit is white seedless. Big as volleyballs, aren't they? Oranges? Yes, oranges are right here. Taste them. They're real sweet."

To the person, a stranger, he's just some kindly fruit stand man who gives you a good deal and carries your bags to your car. That's how Allen likes it.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at (813) 909-4609 or

[Last modified January 25, 2007, 08:38:09]

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