By Brenda Eubanks Burnette
Florida citrus has long been part of holiday celebrations and eventually became more than just a recipe or side dish at meals. The citrus industry became a symbol of Florida’s agricultural prowess, and its importance to the state’s economy and culture was celebrated.
The holidays bring out the best in people who are able to give to the less fortunate. Many in the citrus industry have been like a pebble in the pond, with far-reaching effects from the generosity they were able to provide through their success.
Thanksgiving has always been about celebrating community and giving thanks for family, friends and the blessings in your life. This was really brought home to me recently when I was doing interviews for one of the upcoming Florida Citrus Hall of Fame inductees, Gilbert Bowen. Time after time, I heard stories about his generosity to his friends, family and community — gifts he gave freely and anonymously. It was only after his death that many of his gifts came to light, including his sponsorship of the FFA Leadership Center, his donation of land to the City of Winter Haven that eventually became its Central Park, and his support of scholarships for numerous students and families, to name just a few.
One of his gifts was to support a citrus grower who was down on his luck. Bowen bought him a house to live in and made sure the pantry was always stocked with food. He wasn’t a close friend or family member.
When Bowen was asked why he supported the man, his reply was: “He was part of the citrus industry, and I would hope that if I was ever in that situation that someone would do the same for me.”
Bowen felt that the industry was family, and giving back was something he should do every day to give thanks for the blessings in his life. I was told by one of his friends that Bowen said he tried to do something good for someone every day he woke up. He didn’t do it for the credit. He did it because he felt it was his responsibility to share the blessings he had been given from his hard work and love of the citrus industry.
There are many, many citrus families who, like Bowen, have done the same over the years. The impact their generosity has created in the state of Florida has had significant ripples of goodwill that continue to spread into the future. Whether it is donating to endowments such as the Florida Citrus Fellowship Program, which helps preserve and promote the heritage of the citrus industry, or volunteering at various non-profit organizations, giving back is a gesture of thankfulness for the blessings in our lives.
So as families and friends gather around the table to celebrate this Thanksgiving, the presence of Florida citrus serves as a reminder of the state’s agricultural heritage, the hard work of its farmers, and the abundance that nature provides. It is a celebration of the past and present connections between Florida citrus and this cherished holiday, intertwining tradition, gratitude and reflection on the industry that has given so much to so many. Therefore, when you hold hands with your loved ones over the Thanksgiving blessing, think about reaching out and lending a hand to those in need. Help them make their own dreams realities, so that they, too, can one day do the same for others. That’s called “paying it forward!”
May you and your family have a blessed Thanksgiving surrounded by those you love!
Brenda Eubanks Burnette is executive director of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. Pieces of the Past is presented in partnership with Florida Southern College’s McKay Archives Center in Lakeland.
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