CASTRO VALLEY -- Those who knew Albert Bruno Del Masso say he was larger than life. He was a patriot, humanitarian, incorruptible, a fun-loving prankster, adventurer and a first-rate businessman, they say.

Del Masso, co-owner and president of Bay Cities Produce Co. who began his career as a lumper, died June 14 from cardiac arrest. The Castro Valley resident was 87.

"He was larger than life," said his youngest daughter, Cathy Del Masso.

That sentiment along with tales of Del Masso as a successful produce delivery businessman can be heard around¿ the Bay Area.

Friend Paul Berlin, who served 31 years with the Oakland Police Department, echoed Cathy Del Masso. "Oh yeah. He was something else," he said. Berlin and many Oakland police officers became friends with Del Masso, continuing their friendships until his death.

Del Masso began what is now a multimillion dollar wholesale produce company at the Oakland Produce Market just off Jack London Square in 1947 when he bought a Studebaker truck for $750 and began delivering fruits and vegetables.

The proud Italian said it was his heritage that landed him his first job while in high school with a wholesale merchant who believed all Italians knew produce, said his wife, Diana.

So he said to Del Masso, "You're Italian. You know produce. You'll be in produce."

Del Masso took the job but said, "I don't know anything about produce."

"He learned," said Diana, who was his secretary for many years. "He was sharp."

Del Masso was born June 19, 1926, in Pocahontas, Ill., to Joseph and Catherine Del Masso. His family moved to the Bay Area when he was a young boy.

After graduating from Oakland Tech High School, he joined the Merchant Marines and served his country during World War II in the South Pacific.

Returning home, he went back to work at the Oakland Produce Market as a lumper -- workers who unload produce from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m.

The custom was for patrons to arrive early morning, select what they needed and arrange for its pick up. Occasionally, a patron asked Del Masso if he might deliver the items when he got off work. Always affable, and for a small fee, Del Masso obliged.

That's when the idea sprouted to begin his produce delivery service. No one else was doing it. Today, the company has a fleet of refrigerated trucks, some costing as much as $125,000.

Life at the market, however, was not always a bowl of cherries.

Before the rail tracks near Jack London Square were moved, there was the ongoing "train wars" between the merchants and railroaders. Del Masso's son, Steve Del Masso, co-owner and vice president of Bay Cities, recalls the merchants' nightly outrage when trains would stop on the tracks. Trucks could not move in or out of the market. Work was halted.

Del Masso and the others would yell at the engineer to get the train moving to no avail, recalls Steve Del Masso, who began working with his father at age 7.

"There were many calls to (police) dispatch," Berlin said.

On one occasion, the elder Del Masso grabbed a rotten tomato and took aim at an engineer. Steve Del Masso said the window was cracked open and his father let loose with the tomato and hit the engineer.

In 1979, Del Masso was gravely wounded in a murder-for-hire plot by a gunman who was hired by a Pleasanton gold dealer. His friend, who was with him, was killed in the shooting.

Del Masso loved parties. He once declared "Bay Cities Day," closed up shop and threw a catered party along the market's streets for his employees. A huge chandelier was hung and employees dressed in evening attire. After the morning party, limousines whisked them off to the wine country.

By the turn of the 21st century, Bay Cities had revenues nearing $10 million annually but was losing business because it lacked room to grow.

In the '90s, market merchants were squeezed by then-Mayor Jerry Brown's redevelopment plan and the city's Estuary¿ plan. As president of the Oakland Produce Association, Del Masso asked the city to help them find new accommodations. One of the sites considered was the former Oakland Army Base. Securing land and getting agreements from all parties proved insurmountable.

Del Masso found a piece of land on Williams Street in San Leandro to expand his produce delivery business. With the help of Karl Kolb, a microbiologist, they built the plant, which opened in 2006, to their specifications.

Kolb said Bay Cities has more than 50 highly specialized machines to assure its produce is safe and can be sent directly to hospitals.

"He was very much a patriot," said Kolb, a retired colonel and one-time aide to General Omar Bradley. "I am honored to be treated like family."

Del Masso is survived by his wife Diana, daughters Connie Bird and Cathy, and son Steve.

The Del Masso family requests those wishing to contribute to please consider making donations to Citizens Against Homicide, the Del Masso Children's Foundation in Markleeville and/or Pacific Legal Foundation.

Plans are being made for a memorial service later this year.