Friday, September 16, 2011

Everything I Know I Learned from Milton Hershey

This week (September 13) we celebrate the 154th birthday of chocolate king, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Milton Hershey.

I once gave a school visit talk about my then-latest book at which a second grader asked, wide-eyed, "You mean Walt Disney was a real person?" I guess some names just come to mean more than the people who own them: Disney, John Deere, and J. C. Penney, for example.

Milton Hershey is that kind of name. The word "Hershey" evokes, not images of the man, but of a brown-wrappered bar, a rich dark aroma, and the luscious feeling of smooth milk chocolate melting on one's tongue. Have I made your mouth water?

But like Disney, Milton Hershey was a very real person. Few would have predicted when he began his candy business that it would be the fabulous success it became, or that his name would become synonomous with milk chocolate. In fact, in the beginning, he was a rather spectacular failure. His businesses failed, he ran out of money, and he begged family members for a loan so often that they pretty much stopped talking to him. Maybe he was just the kind of person who was determined to succeed. Maybe it was a matter of confidence, faith, and bold perseverance. Or maybe he just didn't know how to do anything else besides make candy. Whatever the reason, he did eventually succeed. Magnificently.

Good story so far, right? Ah, but--to channel Ron Popeil--wait, there's more! The nickel Hershey bar was such a success that it made Milton Hershey a very wealthy man. And for a while he did live a champagne lifestyle: a grand mansion, exotic trips. He was even booked to travel first class on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. (He didn't go.)

But the death of his beloved wife Kitty at a young age sharpened his sense of perspective. He wanted to do something meaningful in her honor. They had already started a school for orphan boys. Now he donated all that chocolate money to the Milton Hershey School--all of it. He transferred his entire fortune, valued at about sixty million dollars, to the Hershey Trust for the use of his school. He did it quietly, with no fanfare, no press conference. It wasn't until some years after that the press got wind of the donation and disclosed it to the world. Eventually Milton even donated his mansion for the use of the town he'd founded.

It is the chocolate that we think of when we hear Milton Hershey's name. But it is the school that became his true legacy. Because he gave it everything he had.