As the eldest son of a family that was among the original wholesale produce dealers based in the Faneuil Hall area, Stephen Tavilla was used to assuming leadership responsibilities.
He took that role to a higher level in 1968 when he designed and orchestrated the move of the dealers to the New England Produce Center in Chelsea, making way for what would become today’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Mr. Tavilla served as the center’s first president.
“Steve was more than a producer of fruits and vegetables,’’ said Gerard Goldstein, longtime friend and Boston lawyer who traveled with Mr. Tavilla to countries on missions of assistance and was involved in many of his business transactions. “Steve was a philanthropist, a businessman, a developer, and involved with different activities around the world. It was never about money or about himself.’’
Mr. Tavilla, who with his brothers took a produce business their father started with a pushcart in 1928 and expanded it into a New England institution, died New Year’s Day in his Bedford home following abdominal surgery. He was 87 and formerly lived in Lexington for 40 years.
Mr. Tavilla’s design of the New England Produce Center “was done on a napkin over dinner,’’ said his son-in-law Kirk Ware of Westford.
“It was based on the best ideas Steve and his committee found touring other successful terminals in major cities across the country,’’ Ware said. “From the initial investment of $2,500 per bay, the dealers within 20 years would be able to sell their spaces for over 100 times that price.’’
Though partially retired, Mr. Tavilla was still chief executive officer of P. Tavilla Co., which his father founded.
Mr. Tavilla “and his six brothers eventually built the P. Tavilla Co. into one of the largest wholesale produce distributors in New England,’’ Ware said. “The company served for many years as a case study at Harvard Business School.’’
The experience of moving the produce dealers from Faneuil Hall to Chelsea led to “a second career in real estate,’’ Ware said.
Those real estate ventures, Ware said, included purchasing wholesale produce centers in Miami and Houston. Mr. Tavilla’s other projects included developing a multiuse office park in Acton and a 1,000-unit golf course community in Naples, Fla.
Mr. Tavilla, who left school in the eighth grade to work for his family, became so knowledgeable about the produce business that presidents, governors, and other countries sought his advice.
President Reagan recruited him to serve on presidential task forces working with South and Central American countries to offer advice on produce matters.
After serving on the president’s agricultural task force to Venezuela in the early 1980s and visiting other Caribbean Basin and Central American countries, he received a public service award from the US Department of Agriculture.
Back home, Mr. Tavilla was recognized for philanthropic efforts, and he served on the boards of nonprofits and banks.
He and his brothers assisted in founding Teen Challenge, a New England organization “with a remarkable track record changing the lives of young people contending with drug and alcohol issues,’’ Ware said.
Religion also was always important to Mr. Tavilla, who supported missions all over the world and individuals in Christian service.
He and his family took a particular interest in Gordon College in Wenham. R. Judson Carlberg, former president of the college, said the institution awarded Mr. Tavilla an honorary doctorate in public service for his philanthropy, which included scholarships in the family’s name.
“He loved people and wanted to give them a chance to go to college,’’ Carlberg said. “Over the years, he kept track of how each individual was doing. Steve had a huge heart, and everyone loved him.’’
A modest man who didn’t boast about his philanthropic work, Mr. Tavilla also quietly supported numerous missions.
Russ Reinert, a Wycliffe Bible missionary to Peru, recalled that Mr. Tavilla “at least twice arranged to put our shipment for Peru on his trucks and take it to Miami without any cost to us.’’
Despite such work, Mr. Tavilla’s “never wanted to take credit and was behind the scene,’’ said his daughter Stephanie Calareso of Coral Springs, Fla. “He never wanted anyone to think he did it alone.’’
He “held his position as oldest brother very seriously,’’ she said. “He had grace under pressure and the willingness to forget. He would never allow his family to be estranged from one another. He was renowned for his forgiveness.’’
Still, she said, “he was also fun and liked to get silly. He was an indulgent grandfather and never missed their important events. He lived his life humbly. There was no flash about him.’’
Mr. Tavilla was born and raised in Cambridge, the second of 10 children and the oldest of seven brothers.
When he left school in the eighth grade, he went to work with his father, an Italian immigrant, in the wholesale produce business at his father’s pushcart in Faneuil Hall.
Every day they left home at 4 a.m., “walking the dimly lit, nearly deserted street to Central Square,’’ according to a book written by family members. “Sometimes they’d get a lift in a truck heading for the market. Otherwise, they’d take the elevated train to Scollay Square.’’
During World War II, Mr. Tavilla served stateside in the US Army Air Corps.
In 1947 he married Claire Marinelli. When they lived in Lexington, Mr. Tavilla served on the board of Lexington Christian Academy and on the building committee of Grace Chapel.
A service has been held for Mr. Tavilla.
In addition to his wife, daughter, and son-in-law, he leaves a son, Paul of San Antonio; two other daughters, Linda Ware of Westford and Cynthia of Lowell; four brothers, Anthony of South Boston; Joseph of Andover; Paul of Arlington; and Richard of Bedford; three sisters, Tina Maselli of Cranbury, N.J.; Pauline Citro of Fort Mill, S.C.; and Rosalie Tavilla of Naples, Fla.; 11 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
Mr. Tavilla would like to be remembered, Stephanie said, as “a man of great faith devoted to his family, a man who had a limited education, who was intelligent enough to have a very full and productive life. I think he would consider himself a simple man, but a man who accomplished much.’’