Edward Claussen, who moved pickles to groceries’ refrigerated aisle, dead at 85

Written By BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter Posted: 04/14/2014, 09:22am
Array Left to Right: Mr. Claussen’s late brother, Ron, his nephew Steve Claussen, Ron Claussen’s son, and Mr. Claussen.

Edward Claussen’s yacht was named “Peter Piper.”

His nickname was “Pickles.”

At his 85th birthday party, he cried, “Everybody get pickled, on the Pickle Man!”

As sure as dill goes with a pickle, he was a member of the Claussen Pickles family.

His great-grandfather Claus started the company in 1870 when faced with a bumper crop of cucumbers at his farm at 51st and Western. Today, the brand is owned by Kraft Foods.

Mr. Claussen, who became president and chief executive officer, is credited with shifting the business from shelved pickles to a refrigerated version that strengthened the company’s market share. Touted as a crisp and crunchy pickle that snaps instead of bending, it’s billed as “Always Chilled, Never Heated” and “From Vine to Jar in 8Days.”

Mr. Claussen, 85, who died of congestive heart failure March 14 at his home in Phoenix, said he wanted his ashes spread over the Chicago lakefront and near the pickle plant in Woodstock, Ill.

He died listening to the jazz he adored, including music from Chicago violinist Johnny Frigo, and his friend George Shearing, the English piano legend and composer of the classic “Lullaby of Birdland,” who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. Mr. Claussen enjoyed travel holidays with Shearing and his wife, Ellie, who often stayed at his Phoenix home. Besides jazz and travel, Shearing and Mr. Claussen also shared a fondness for five lines of silliness: the limerick.

He loved hosting gatherings with jam sessions by musician friends. His parties swung even harder thanks to a high-tech piano that digitally recorded and replayed performances, said popular Chicago jazz pianist Judy Roberts.

“He had, in his home, one of the finest instruments in the world, a Yamaha Disklavier,” Roberts said. “You could go to his house, hang out, play his piano, see what you played afterwards — look at those (keys) going down.”

Years after a performance, the music remained stored. “You could watch [and listen to] George Shearing play,” she said. “You could watch me play.”

Before he played hard, he worked hard. “He was a bachelor, so he was the one who could put in the 20-hour days,” said his nephew, Steve Claussen.

When he took a leading role in the family business, it had gone somewhat stale, said his sister-in-law, Lois Claussen Greiner, who was married to his late brother, Ron.

“They used to have strictly shelf items, and then when Ed got involved, he worked with some chemist and came up with the refrigerated pickle,” she said. “He knew that was the way to keep the company going, and that exploded when the fresh pickle came out.”

“Oscar Mayer saw it as a perfect fit for their deli because they could put it next to their meats,” said Steve Claussen, who is her son. Oscar Mayer acquired Claussen’s in 1970. Then General Foods acquired Oscar Mayer. In 1989, the pickle company became part of the Kraft brand, which lists Claussen’s revenues as “$100 million +” on its website.

The snap of their refrigerated pickle was featured in cheeky advertising that landed Claussen’s in a pickle in 1992. Their commercials compared the crunch of a Claussen’s pickle to more pliable competitors, according to a New York Times article that covered the briney squabble. Though unnamed in the ads, Vlasic complained to an advertising tribunal that Claussen’s spots were misleading.

Mr. Claussen went to Gage Park High School and, briefly, the University of Illinois.

“He went there for two semesters and he played too much pool and he literally left college,” his nephew said. “He was a self-made man, all the way.”

Self-taught at automation, he helped develop a machine that dropped cucumbers from a conveyor belt into a vat of water so they wouldn’t get bruised.

He played trumpet in an Army band in Korea during the Korean War, relatives said.

Get-togethers of the German-Danish family often included “tantes” (aunts) leading Bavarian-style singalongs, his sister-in-law said.

He came close to marriage a few times, she said, but “he was kind of a perfectionist.”

Though he relocated to Phoenix, he kept a condo for years on Ohio Street. He liked to return in the summer and watch Chicago’s Air and Water Show.

And “he would go wherever the jazz was,” said singer Elke Guertler, who performs at Chicago’s Gaslight Club.

He took his listening seriously, said Phoenix-based jazz pianist Armand Boatman. If clubgoers chattered loudly, “He’d get off the barstool and walk over and tell them, ‘Hey, if you want to talk, go outside.’ ”

Mr. Claussen also is survived by one brother, Fred Claussen; his nieces, Linda Patterson, Lisa Claussen, Kimberly Gaffrey, Christine Hamann, Kelly Hesemann and Melissa Claussen, and his other nephews, Rick, Scott, Andrew and Peter Claussen.

A celebration of his life is planned May 24 at the Sagewood retirement community in Phoenix.

Email: modonnell@suntimes.com

Twitter: @suntimesobits

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