At the end of a long day tending to the crop fields of deep south Miami-Dade County, John LaPradd would sometimes bring home a bouquet for his wife.
But he didn’t bring home roses. Not carnations nor daisies, either.
“He would bring me a bouquet of Spanish needles,” said his wife, Dona LaPradd. “It’s a weed! It was meant to be funny. We always laughed.”
This week, LaPradd’s family was picking flowers for him: red roses for the casket of a man who was always quick with a joke. Known as “Johnny” and “Big John,” he died Saturday of an infection at South Miami Hospital. He was 76.
“Fun guy, man,” said local farmer John Alger. “But if we aren’t telling jokes at his funeral, he’d be mad.”
Born July 18, 1936 in St. Augustine, LaPradd followed two of his eight siblings to Miami after graduating from high school. Sister Marguerite had married farmer Paul Cornelius, of Cornelius and Sons Farms in the Homestead area; brother Dennis, was a Homestead police officer.
Dennis’ wedding led to another: It was there LaPradd met Dona, the sister of the bride.
“I knew when I looked at him, I wanted him,” Dona said.
After five years of courtship — going to dinner, the movies and hunting — John wrote Dona a letter asking her to marry him. She promptly called him on the telephone.
“I was thrilled...I said ‘yes,’ ” she said.
They were married on Easter Sunday, April 17, 1960, at First Presbyterian Church in Homestead.
John had started off farming, but in the early 1980s, he opened his own grove maintenance company: LaPradd’s Grove Service. John pulled the weeds, sprayed the pesticides and harvested the crops on farms owned by others. Dona kept the books.
Just like their company, Dona called their marriage “a great partnership.”
John also grew his own avocados. His children — daughter Mosley and sons John and Charles — always pitched in.
“When you farm, your family farms with you,” said Charles LaPradd, 43, who is the Miami-Dade agricultural manager.
Though he was blinded in one eye as a child (he was accidently hit with a shovel), John’s family and friends said he was well-known for his hunting skills. He relied on being able to call owls with his mouth, which would also attract gobbling turkeys. His bird-calling prowess was featured in a 1975 article in the Florida Sportsman, which called him “The Owl Man of Dade County.”
“In a turkey hunt early in the morning, you want to know where the turkeys are... the sound of the owl calling would initiate a gobble,” said Hal Arve, a Dade County Farm Bureau agent and John’s friend for 40 years. “He could actually antagonize owls to where they would attack him...one of them nailed him upside the head.”
John had the scar of the angry owl’s talons on the side of his face. No matter, though, because he was tough, “the type of guy folklore is made of,” Alger remembered. “He had a hard head. I tried to head-butt him one time as a young man. His forehead had me seeing stars.”
Trying to take on LaPradd in head-butting challenges became a “local rite of passage,” said his son, Charles LaPradd.
Despite knocking Alger out cold, John LaPradd went on to take care of his groves for 15 years. LaPradd never had contracts with any of his clients, who trusted him at his word.
“His main thing was to always be honest, to be able to look yourself in the mirror every day. And he was really known for that around town,” said Charles LaPradd.
Though Alger jokingly called him a “grizzly bear,” LaPradd’s daughter remembered him as a family man who made time to take his kids on vacation and fishing. Mosley Boyette said her dad went on to do the same with his grandkids.
LaPradd coached his sons’ football teams, and even played in the early 1960s on a short-lived, semi-pro Homestead football team, The Guided Missiles, according to a Spring 2012 Dade County Farm Bureau newsletter. The organization inducted him into its Hall of Honor last year for his years of work in South Dade’s fields.
In addition to his wife and children, LaPradd is survived by his only surviving sibling, sister Susie Lawson.
A viewing will be held 6-9 p.m. Friday at Branam Funeral Home, 809 N. Krome Ave. in Homestead. Services will be 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Branam Funeral Home, with the burial immediately following at Palms Woodlawn, 27100 Old Dixie Hwy. in Naranja.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to the Florida Avocado Administrative Committee in his name for the research and mitigation of laurel wilt disease, which has recently affected avocado groves in South Dade. Donations can be mailed to PO Box 900188, Homestead, FL 33090-0188.