Professor Thomas B. Mack (1914-2004)
Mack and his peers developed a premier citrus program at Florida Southern College. Mack was often called upon to act as a P.R. man to visitors and as a campus liaison with Frank Lloyd Wright himself. He was dubbed “Mr. Citrifacts” for his production of a column called “Citrifacts”, which contained random citrus-related trivia.
G.I. Bill of Rights
Dr. A.F. Camp
U.F. Florida Research Center
Florida Southern College
Citrus Advisory Committee
Citrifacts I & II
Polk Public Clinic
Thomas B. Mack never owned a grove or operated a packinghouse, but nevertheless was an integral member of Florida’s Citrus community for over half a century. Born in Orangeburg, South Carolina, on October 27, 1914, Mack himself always said that he may have been destined to join the citrus world. His family moved to Florida seven years after his birth, initially landing in Wauchula before finally settling in Plant City. Mack’s father was involved in agriculture, managing the Wauchula-based Kilgore Seed Company (later known as the Asgrow Florida Company) during the 1920s.
Mack graduated from Plant City High School in 1933 and entered the University of Florida in 1934 with the intention of becoming a doctor. At the urging of a professor, he abandoned his plan and instead declared himself an Ornamental Horticulture major. In 1937, Mack got married and was forced to drop out of school. He worked with a candy company in Plant City before joining the army at the outbreak of World War II. Mack served throughout the war and returned to the University of Florida in 1946, graduating in 1947 with a degree in Ornamental Horticulture with an emphasis in landscape architecture. Prior to graduation, Mack received offers from Florida Southern College to join in the formation of a new Citrus Department, but he considered the salary too low and declined the offer.
Mack gained employment with the Department of Education in what was dubbed a “veteran’s vocational agriculture” program, designed to allow veterans to utilize their GI Bill of Rights. He was given control of the citrus aspect of the program despite only having a basic knowledge of the subject, leading to an arrangement with Dr. A.F. Camp of the University of Florida Research Center in Lake Alfred, where Dr. Camp would handle the bulk of the teaching while Mack supervised and handled the more rudimentary tasks. The program benefited Mack as much as the veterans, as he gained five years of experience in the field before the program ended in 1951. In this same year, Mack was once again approached by Florida Southern College, and this time he accepted.
Mack and his colleagues had their work cut out for them, as the college’s idea of a vocational program, designed to train students for jobs in the field, rather than a research-based program, was not entirely accepted by those in the collegiate community. Nevertheless, Mack and his peers eventually developed a premier citrus program at the school. Florida Southern had the benefit of having a large amount of grove land on campus, which Mack and his colleagues used extensively. Mack and fellow faculty member Raymond Lyle used their connections as University of Florida graduates to set up opportunities for students to learn at the Research Center in Lake Alfred. In addition to regular full-time students, Mack and his colleagues set up a part-time program where students from within the industry could be sent to be educated in the field, often financially backed by their employers. Mack was most effective at gaining industry support for the citrus program as a whole, even reviving the idea of an advisory board composed of industry leaders, known as the Citrus Advisory Committee.
In 1958, the program gained publicity when it moved into the Polk Science Building, designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Mack was often called upon to act as a P.R. man to visitors and as a campus liaison with Wright himself. He was initially excited to hear of plans for the first Wright-designed greenhouse in the world, but was dismayed to find it essentially useless when it was built almost entirely out of concrete, according to the architect’s calculations on light needed for plant growth. This forced Mack to adopt the role of fund raiser, and he eventually raised funds to build a functioning greenhouse, which he cheekily dubbed the “Frank Lloyd Wright Greenhouse.” Throughout the remainder of his career, Mack was an effective if sometimes eccentric fund raiser, raising money for an even larger greenhouse and eventually an entirely new citrus building, which he dedicated to one of the primary benefactors, naming it the Jack M. Berry Citrus Building. Mack raised funds for a mini-bus for the department at an alumni dinner in 1978, where he convinced those attending that the doors were locked and they would not be opened until money had been raised.
Mack became chair of the Department in 1971, re-naming it the Citrus Institute. He served in this capacity for ten years, retiring from full-time teaching in 1981. In his honor, a “Roast Professor Mack Night” was held, upon which he received a $12,000 retirement gift. He continued teaching on a part-time basis until 1999, earning the title of Professor Emeritus. Throughout his half-century of teaching, Mack had taught many of the current industry leaders.
His retirement in 1999 came about so he could spend more time organizing a citrus archives collection which he had been assembling since 1947, when he first entered the citrus field. Throughout the remainder of his life he collected citrus labels, magazines, text books, photographs, business records, and other forms of citrus memorabilia, eventually amassing the world’s largest collection of citrus-related items. Over 60,000 photos and 1,000 labels are present, and many books date to the nineteenth century, including an 1881 copy of Orange Culture. Mack’s intention was to create an open source of information for the industry. The Jack M. Berry Citrus building was built with room for the collection, but it eventually outgrew these facilities and had to be moved elsewhere on the Florida Southern campus. The collection currently is housed in the Sarah D. and L. Kirk McKay Jr. Archives Center on the Florida Southern campus.
Mack also made a name for himself as a writer. He was dubbed “Mr. Citrifacts” for his production of a column called “Citrifacts,” which contained random citrus-related trivia. These were later compiled into the books Citrifacts I and Citrifacts II, whose sale benefited Florida Southern College. He also wrote a column called Polk Garden Clinic, where he answered plant-related questions every Saturday for twelve years. He was also a prominent landscaper and community member, once having a day dedicated to him by the city of Lakeland. He was chosen for the honor of building a garden to represent it in the sister-city project with the Japanese city Imabari.
Mack was inducted to the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame in 1997. In 2004, the citrus world said goodbye to one of its most colorful members when Thomas B. Mack passed away due to cancer at the age of 90.