Duluth's 'Tomato Man' dies
Ray Picconatto, known in Duluth for years of generosity through gardening, died Saturday. Picconatto, 65, grew 1,000 tomato plants this year for children at 12 area elementary schools despite treatment for esophageal cancer. He was featured in a ...
Ray Picconatto, known in Duluth for years of generosity through gardening, died Saturday.
Picconatto, 65, grew 1,000 tomato plants this year for children at 12 area elementary schools despite treatment for esophageal cancer. He was featured in a front-page News Tribune story -- " 'Tomato man' helps kids grow" -- eight days before his death.
"If he liked you, he helped you," said Sharon Picconatto, Ray's wife of nearly 32 years. "He so loved his community, his town."
Picconatto's work with schools began with Stowe
Elementary, and "mushroomed" to others, his wife said. The Smithville man ended up growing thousands of tomato plants for kids to take home and nurture in the past few years and was working on his next crop. He's widely known to the kids he worked with as "the Tomato Man."
A member of the Duluth Flower and Garden Society and the Smithville and Norton Park garden clubs, Picconatto spent many hours helping to cultivate the city. He taught seminars and welcomed people into his yard and gardens to share his passion.
"There was never a time when he wouldn't be willing to help, even when he was sick," said Tom Kasper, president of the Duluth Flower and Garden Society. "He was always the first guy there, and the last to leave. I can think of 50 things he's done for the betterment of gardening in our community off the top of my head."
Sharon Picconatto said he wasn't always a fan of growing things, recalling childhood tales of a young Ray pouring hot water onto plants so he could get out of the chore.
"But he's been a gardener his whole adult life," she said.
He hadn't planned to attend the judging of students' tomatoes and other produce at Nettleton on Sept. 23, because his health was failing, Sharon Picconatto said.
"He came home so excited he had gone," she said. "Ray had the biggest smile on his face and said, 'To think I almost didn't go.' It was emotional for him."
Kasper said he'd find a way to carry on Picconatto's work with schools.
"It's going to be Ray's tomatoes, no matter where they come from," he said.
A funeral service is set for 11 a.m. Wednesday at Asbury United Methodist Church, 6822 Grand Ave.