Walking through his family’s Polk County orange groves, scouting for pests or herding cows from horseback across the family’s cattle ranches gave Will Putnam a challenging and fulfilling career for more than 30 years.
His life grounded in the land he loved, Will Putnam’s passions for agriculture, community and family defined him. He was happiest with his family and when serving the community and industry he loved.
A fifth-generation Floridian and lifelong Bartow resident, William “Will” Dudley Putnam III died on August 25 at Tampa General Hospital following a long illness. He was 51.
Born in Bartow on Christmas Day in 1964, Will was as comfortable in faded blue jeans, work boots and a cowboy hat in the groves or on the ranch, as he was in a blue blazer, khakis, coordinated tie and comfortable dress shoes in the board room of Florida’s Natural or at the podium as the Chairman of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Young Farmer & Rancher Committee. When he was elected as AFBF YF&R’s Committee Chairman in 1998, he was only the second Floridian to attain that national office.
He was founder and President of Putnam Ag Services; Vice President of both Putnam Groves, Inc., and Dudley Putnam, Inc.; Chairman of the Board of Orange Growers Marketing Association and a Director with Florida’s Natural Growers. As part of an ad campaign featuring the Florida growers behind Florida’s Natural, Will and his youngest son, Robby, were pictured in their family groves on the panels of half-gallon cartons of Florida’s Natural orange juice sold across the world. They heard from friends who saw them in grocery shelves as far away as South Korea.
He was generous with his time, talent, leadership and funds. He served on the Vestry Committee at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church and as a Board Member of Dixie Youth Baseball and Co-President of Bartow High School’s Booster Club.
His agricultural leadership legacy started in 1983 when he was the Polk County FFA President and a state FFA Officer.
His Southern drawl and husky voice, deepened by years spent in South Carolina studying Agricultural Mechanization and Business at Clemson University (where he was the recipient of the Lee McDowell Memorial Award for Outstanding Senior in 1987), lent weight to his pragmatic counsel on local, state and national Farm Bureau committees and Boards.
He contributed to the success of Polk County Farm Bureau as Chairman of PCFB’s Young Farmer & Rancher (YF&R) Committee. He and his wife, Lee, were the 1993 Florida Farm Bureau Federation’s YF&R State Contest winners. His YF&R leadership earned him a seat on the Florida Farm Bureau Federation’s Board of Directors from 1994-1996. He served on the Polk County Farm Bureau Board of Directors for decades and was its Chairman from 2000-2002. He was the Sunbelt Expo Lancaster Southeastern Farmer of the Year in 2002.
His callused hands built many a cattle pen for AgriFest and the Polk County Youth Fair; in a well-worn butcher’s apron, he grilled hundreds of USDA Prime steaks for Polk County’s Youth Fair buyers and elected Polk County leaders at ag events in Bartow.
Whether it was organizing hayrides on crisp December nights to see the Christmas lights of Bartow or teaching his kids how to fish off of Little Gasparilla Island, Will made family and friends his priority. Watching the boats go by and scalloping in Homosassa were favorite parts of family vacations.
He and Lee cheered on their daughter, Courtney, when she pitched softball for the Bartow Lady Jackets and for their son, Buddy, when he played first base for the USF Bulls. Will was a fixture behind the backstop for every one of their youngest son Robby’s Super Sonics baseball games.
He is survived by Lee, his wife of 27 years; daughter, Courtney (John) O’Neal; sons, Buddy Putnam (fiancee’ Brie Bird) and Robby Putnam; grandchildren, Addie Grace and J.D. O’Neal; his parents, Dudley and Sally Putnam; sister, Ghia (John) Clyatt; brothers, Abel (Tammy) and Adam (Melissa) Putnam; five nephews, and three nieces all from Bartow. He was predeceased by his paternal grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley A.. Putnam, maternal grandparents Mr. and Mrs. Robert L. Hughes; and his niece, Elyse Spinosa.
Memorials may be made to:
Polk County Farm Bureau for the Polk County Farm Bureau Young Farmers & Ranchers Scholarships, 1715 US Highway 17 South, Bartow, FL 33830;
Florida’s Natural Growers Foundation, P.O. Box 1111, Lake Wales, FL 33859-1111;
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, 500 West Stuart Street, Bartow, FL 33830; or,
Heartland Horses & Handicapped, P.O. Box 3787, Sebring, FL 33871.