Childless Chocolate Baron Fathers Hershey, Pa.


The aroma of roasting cocoa beans flavors the air. A main street, enticingly called Chocolate Avenue, is lit by lamps shaped like Hershey's Kisses. Roller coasters snake through lush green hills.

A child's paradise?

This is the legacy of Milton S. Hershey, top industrialist, top chocolate manufacturer--and father figure to generations of youngsters, even though he was childless.

Those who knew him conjure up memories and tears of gratitude. Those whose lives were touched after his death also honor his heritage--built on chocolate, but far sweeter.

In 1905, Hershey opened a chocolate factory, still the largest of the 21 Hershey Food Corp. plants in North America. Amid cornfields, he built a town, including a school for orphans, funded by his already considerable fortune. Today, the Hershey companies sustain a trust that he established for the school, valued at about $5 billion.

Pristine in south central Pennsylvania, the town of Hershey counts 9,000 residents. Though the best-known two square miles of Derry Township's 28, the town is unincorporated--and virtually unchanged since Hershey died in 1945 at age 88.

Hershey is everywhere: The Hershey Theatre stages regional productions. The elaborate Hotel Hershey "competes" with The Hershey Lodge and Convention Center. The Hershey amusement park entertains and enthralls, as it has since 1907 as a perk for factory workers.

Robert Vowler heads the multibillion Hershey Trust Co. As president and CEO, he manages what the trust owns, including some 9,000 acres, or 42% of Derry Township. Such a large chunk, Vowler says, calls for a "responsibility to care for the land and plan for its use." And, he adds, "we have no plans for a sale."

Local policymakers govern with one perennial question, according to August "Skip" Memmi Jr., chairman of the township supervisors: "What would Mr. Hershey think about this?"

That question reverberates through town, from factory workers to the Milton Hershey School staff, students and alumni.

"Things should be addressed to what Mr. Hershey wanted," says Philip Fratti, who came to Hershey's school in 1932 at age 12. "He dreamed of his home-boys running the town." And they do. Fratti has been township tax collector for 36 years.

At first, Hershey built a business and then designed the town to accommodate it. Houses went up near the factory, convenient for workers in a pre-auto era. He provided trolleys as the work force grew.

He purchased one farm after another, assuring the flow of dairy for his chocolate and, perhaps accidentally, insulating the community. (Of course, township officials say now, Hershey would not have wanted suburban sprawl.)

"He expected a good day's work for wages. . . . That philosophy suited my grandparents just fine," recalls state Rep. Frank "Chick" Tulli Jr. His grandfather left Italy and joined Hershey's building boom as a stonecutter.

Then Hershey built a community, providing the hospital, library, post office, general store, even steam recycled from the factory to heat private homes. A stable environment was especially important to him because Hershey moved frequently as a child and his father was largely absent. He wanted to spare others the pains of youth he remembered.

So when it became apparent that the Hersheys could not have children, he created the Hershey Industrial School. It opened in 1909, accepting needy or orphaned boys as young as 4 years.

"I want to see that every one of them learns a trade," he is quoted in one authorized biography.

"Let them earn their own livings. Some will want to be farmers, and they ought to be taught the best methods of farm management. But there will be others who want to be electricians, carpenters, typesetters or plumbers. We'll give them a chance to learn all these things."

Some alumni, however, feel that the school is losing Hershey's vision, scaling back vocational courses in favor of college prep.

"He'd be turning over in his grave if he knew what was going on," says Alan Greer, of Lancaster, Pa., class of '44.

But William Lepley, school president, says it offers seven programs and is nationally certified in each.

Greer and others who attended the school during Hershey's lifetime remember him as a kindly benefactor. "You're one of my boys, aren't you?" Hershey would ask of Fratti. And Fratti? "I was so grateful, words can't express."

Richard Dewalt recalls seeing Hershey when he first arrived at the school at age 10. "I call him my godfather," says Dewalt, now 63 and still working at the main plant.

After his wife died in 1915, Hershey decided there was no reason to delay: He gave a fortune to the school.

Today the school thrives on the Hershey Trust Co. Valued by Vowler as among the world's top 10 trusts, it owns 41% of Hershey Foods Corp. common stock, 76% of all voting shares and 100% of the Hershey Entertainment and Resort Co., which attracts more than 4 million visitors each year.

The school budgeted more than $58 million in 1996-97 for a thousand orphaned children, including girls, who were first admitted in 1976. The budget provides for college too.

Today the school maintains 97 homes on 1,400 acres, each home housing up to a dozen students. Invoking the Hershey presence, community archivist Pam Cassidy explains: "He felt green space was a very important environment for the boys. He wanted them to be in a home, not an institutional setting."

"We feel it's the best way to raise kids. You tell me," Vowler says, "if you're a 6-year-old kid who just lost your parents, would you prefer a dorm or a home?"

Grass. Open fields. Tranquillity. "That's the thing I loved the most," says Alfredo Gonzalez, 30, an alumnus who oversees eight of the school's homes. "The rush is not here."

It was tough at first for Gonzalez, a city boy who who arrived from west Philadelphia at age 12. "I milked cows," he recalls, noting that by graduation, "there was no job I turned down." And, as he points out now, "I didn't have to worry about being shot."

Cows are still part of the educational experience, grazing in Gary and Angie Perlakowski's backyard. These house-parents provide round-the-clock care in a family setting.

Angie sees the challenge: "They've been through a lot in their lives. . . . It's incredible."

Gary, a family therapist from Pittsburgh, sees "the opportunity to shape their character and mold them into fine adults."

Jamal Samah, an 8-year-old who lives with the couple, sees the advantages: "There's no danger. You're safe."

True to the Hershey legacy, the school is creating a $70-million "town center" with key buildings within walking distance. Forget the trolley. Look for a new high school, middle school, visual arts center, learning resource center and renovated fitness and arts centers.

Hershey's vision for wholesome living is still the school's primary goal, says Lepley, though he concedes "what we're trying to do is maybe a more modern version."

Cassidy ticks off lessons that Hershey would applaud: Chores and honest labor. A sense of responsibility and self-discipline.

This, she says, is what Hershey had in mind.

"His purpose was not to create leaders but contributing members of community. He hoped the boys would go back and become dads that coached, held steady jobs and raised families.

"To him, those were the true success stories."

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