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John R. Norton III, father of the PACA Trust, dies at 87

John R. Norton III, a tireless advocate for the fresh produce industry largely credited with establishing the all-important Trust provision of the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act, died on Sunday, April 17, at the age of 87 at his home in Arizona.

Mr. Norton was a third-generation Arizonan whose father was also a well-known farmer and pioneer in the lettuce business.  John Norton III was active in many industry organizations over the years and also served for several years beginning in 1985 as Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.  But it was a few years before that in which he cemented his place in the history of the fresh produce industry.

Mr. Norton was the 1980 chairman of the board of Western Growers (WG) and in 1982, he served in the same position for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association (now the United Fresh Produce Association).  As such he was very active in the industry in the early ‘80s when he hatched the idea of establishing a priority position for fresh produce producers in the event of a receiver bankruptcy.  “He was also involved in the cattle industry,” remembers WG Executive Vice President Matthew McInerney, “and he knew of the financial protections that industry received from the Packers and Stockyard Act.  He reasoned that if it worked for cattle why couldn’t it work for fresh produce.”

McInerney said Mr. Norton and Don Smith of Turlock Fruit Co. in Turlock, CA, worked hand in hand to get the bill introduced amending the PACA and then lobbied Congress to pass it in 1984.  “Johnny (Norton) deserves all the credit,” said Smith, upon hearing of his death.  “He was the grand master of that PACA amendment and a real visionary in our industry.  I was merely his assistant in that effort.”

Smith remembers meeting John Norton in the late 1950s when the two worked together on the introduction of a new carton for honeydews, and thus began a life-long friendship.  “He was a great leader in our industry and could have been a great executive in the political world if he would have chosen that route.”

McInerney said “there is no hollow ring” to using the accolade “great leader” when describing Mr. Norton.  “The industry owes him a debt of gratitude for all the work he did.  A few years ago, it was calculated that the industry had saved more than $1 billion because of the passage of the PACA Trust amendment.”

Mr. Norton was born April 10, 1929, in Phoenix where he was raised.  He attended Stanford University for one year, but graduated in 1950 from the University of Arizona with a bachelor's degree in agriculture. He remained involved in U of A throughout his life, serving on many committees and boards, and donating to many university causes.  

After meeting and marrying Doris Schaefer, the couple moved to Blythe, CA, where he founded the J.R. Norton Co., a diverse farming operation with production in both California and Arizona.

He served on many board over the years including both WG and United Fresh.  In 1980, President-elect Ronald Reagan selected him for his transition team, which led to his stint at USDA five years later.

His list of honors both in and out of the industry is prodigious, including the Western Growers Award of Honor in 1985 and the U of A “Bear Down” Alumnus Award.  An internet posting of his obituary on the Western Growers website is filled with comments from people he mentored and helped over the years. The Norton’s collaborated with the U of A Center for Creative Photography and endowed the Norton Gallery at the Phoenix Art Museum.  Their other gifts to the community include the John and Doris Norton Healing Garden at St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he was born, in 2006.   He endowed a Chair at the U of A in the School for Fathers, Parenting and Families with the John Norton Endowed Chair for Prostate Cancer Research at the U of A in 2008. He also established the Norton Scholarship Endowment Fund at Creighton University School of Medicine at St. Joseph’s, 2011.

In 2014 their historic gift to the St. Joseph’s Foundation established the John and Doris Norton Cardiothoracic and Transplantation Institute enabling recruitment of the most exceptional specialists in lung transplantation, disease and diagnosis, esophageal disease diagnosis and treatment. And with the founding of the Norton Foundation, charitable educational and scientific purposes will be the Norton’s legacy, benefiting the community for many generations.

Mr. Norton is survived by his wife, Doris, three children and many others in his extended family.

The memorial service will be held at 10 a.m., Friday, April 29 at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, in Phoenix.