Kay Hiatt, “Legend” and “Pioneer” of the Citrus Industry

VERO BEACH, Florida: “Kay wasn’t just a pioneer in our industry, she was a legend,” said Dan Ritchey, CEO of Riverfront Packing Co., which is one of the leading packers of citrus in Florida. “With grace and class, she commanded respect in an industry dominated by men. She may have been the only woman in the citrus industry to wield such influence for the first 20 years of her career.”

Kiyo (Kay) Ueda Hiatt was a pioneer for women in the Florida citrus industry. She was one of the top sales agents in the state for many years, initially for Deerfield Groves and later for Ocean Spray Citrus in Vero Beach, Fla. She was well respected by her nationwide customer base and was instrumental in expanding sales of Florida citrus into Japanese markets. In addition to sales, she served on various federal and state committees that oversaw Florida citrus, including the Indian River Advisory Committee.

Kay’s accomplishments are even more impressive considering her early childhood. She was a first-generation Japanese American citizen born in Fife, Wash., to Sadaichiro and Tomeno Ueda on July 10, 1926. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps. Kay’s family was among them, and they were sent to the Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho. But she rose above the injustice and indignity of the long three years in the camp to persevere the rest of her life and achieve success in the business world.

Against great odds, she was accepted to Bucknell University soon after being released from the internment camp. After marrying, she and her late husband, Roy C. Hiatt, moved to Florida where he worked as a chef. Her work in the citrus industry began at Deerfield Groves but not as a sales agent. She took a job to help support her young family as a grader on a packing line.

Because she had an insatiable curiosity and appetite for learning, she wasn’t satisfied with just knowing how to grade fruit. So she spent time querying employees in other departments at the packinghouse and gained a deep understanding about the overall operation. It wasn’t long before she was given the job of running the shipping office where she gleaned abundant knowledge of how the citrus markets worked. With that experience, came the opportunity to join the sales desk and, in a few short years, she was promoted to sales manager.

Mike Kissner, formerly of Deerfield Groves said, “Kay carved her own place and paved the way for the future of women in our industry. She cracked the barrier.”

“Kay was a wonderful friend and leader in our industry,” Theresa Nolan of The Nolan Network said in remembering her. “She was dignified and quiet but when she spoke it revealed her immense experience and high intelligence.  She wasn’t just smart, she was also loaded with common sense.  I was blessed to know such a fabulous lady.”    

Kay died peacefully on July 11 at Treasure Coast Hospice – Harper House in Stuart, Fla. She had just turned 94 years old. She leaves behind her four children; Samuel (Patty) Harrison, Karen Hiatt, Cynthia (J.R.) Benedetto and Allan Hiatt, five grandchildren; Tye Harrison, Kristen Hernandez, Derek Lawrence, Lance Barrett, and Kiyo Vigliotti, as well as five great-grandchildren.

Kay was known for her keen intellect and love of language. She was a voracious reader and wordsmith, which made her a fierce Scrabble competitor.  In her later years, she enjoyed tending to her orchids, and she was a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees.

Kay will be remembered as an iron-willed woman full of strength and stamina tempered by patience and self-sacrifice. Above all, she loved God, was devoted to family, and was a fierce American patriot. She touched many lives over the course of her 94 years.