Orville Redenbacher, a scientific farmer who built a gourmet popcorn empire and created a personal reputation promoting his favorite snack food, died Tuesday at his home in Coronado. He was 88.
Redenbacher was found by a building worker about 6 a.m. Tuesday in his Coronado Shores condominium whirlpool, where he drowned after a heart attack, said Cal Vine, supervising investigator at the San Diego County medical examiner's office.
"He's been one of the greatest forces for promoting popcorn. It'll be a great loss," said William E. Smith, executive director of the Popcorn Institute in Chicago and a friend of Redenbacher for 43 years. "Many people thought he was a media creation, but what people saw on television, that was him."
What people saw on television--and walking the quiet streets of Coronado--was a dapper silver-haired, bespectacled man sporting a bow tie and suspenders. He had become a popular figure in the seaside resort near San Diego since retiring there nearly two decades ago. Wherever he went, Redenbacher handed out souvenir cards affirming, "I met Orville Redenbacher."
Although he sold his company in 1978 to Fullerton-based Hunt-Wesson Foods for a reported $2 million, Redenbacher had continued as its avuncular spokesman.
"Popcorn is fun, and I have fun selling it," he recently told an interviewer after decades of refining, developing and marketing his product throughout the 50 states. Orville Redenbacher's Gourmet Popping Corn is the leading brand among microwave popcorn.
Redenbacher developed his love of popcorn in Brazil, Ind., where his family spent evenings around a potbelly stove savoring the aroma from a wire corn popper. He later studied agronomy and plant genetics at Purdue University.
As a sousaphone player in Purdue's marching band, he adopted one of the homespun comments that became a trademark of his promotional persona: "That's where I learned to toot my own horn."
When Purdue gave its famous alumnus an honorary doctor of agriculture degree in 1988, Redenbacher quipped: "Purdue not only pioneered research in popping corn hybridization, but they also helped begin my 'pop to the top' in the popcorn industry."
After graduate work at Colorado State University, Redenbacher taught vocational agriculture in high school and then became a county agricultural agent in Terre Haute, Ind., where he did daily radio interviews with farmers from the fields.
He later managed the 12,000-acre Princeton Farms, where he began producing commercial popcorn in 1943. In 1952, he teamed up with Charles Bowman and bought the agricultural company George F. Chester and Son in Valparaiso, Ind., producing seed corn.
Working with Purdue researchers, Redenbacher spent several decades crossbreeding about 30,000 corn hybrids to find what he wanted. In 1971, he started marketing the result out of the trunk of his car, calling it "the very first gourmet popping corn."
The secret was to dry corn carefully and slowly to maintain an exact moisture level (13.25%) in each kernel, making for nearly 100% popability. If the system failed, Redenbacher heard about it--even during his semi-retirement years in Coronado.
"Every once in a while, someone will mail me a single popcorn kernel that didn't pop. They'll tape it to a piece of paper and mail it to me," he told The Times in 1984. "So I'll get out a fresh kernel, tape it to a piece of paper and mail it back to them."
The popcorn was originally branded Redbow, a combination of Redenbacher and Bowman's names. A Chicago advertising agency, realizing Redenbacher's natural talent as a folksy television huckster, suggested the name change and guided him into national promotion of his popcorn.
Redenbacher returned annually to the Valparaiso Popcorn Festival to tout new products.
Twice widowed, Redenbacher is survived by two daughters, Gail Tuminello of Valparaiso, and Billie Ann Atwood of San Jose, and 12 grandchildren, including attorney Gary Redenbacher, who is also a popcorn spokesman.