OPINION COLUMNS

Hershey School sweetens life for thousands of orphans

By Roy J. Eaton | Published Saturday, October 20, 2012

Mention the word “generous” and I immediately think of the people of Wise County, who in the last year have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to charitable and educational causes, ranging from the spring firefighters benefit to the Red Carpet Gala for Weatherford College Wise County.

Roy J. Eaton

There are many great stories of generosity in the Bible, my favorite being the unnamed father of what we know as the prodigal son, who welcomed his errant son home with open arms and a great feast.

But how many of you associate great generosity when you buy a Hershey candy bar? My guess would be, probably not many.

Earlier this month I spent a week in Hershey, Penn., at an antique car event and discovered a lot about the town that bears the name of Milton Hershey.

Milton got his start in business selling candy door-to-door, not unlike the story of Mrs. Minnie Baird, who sent her children out with their wagons to sell fresh-baked bread to her neighbors in Fort Worth.

After failing in business several times in the late 1800s, Hershey discovered a recipe for making caramels. While building his successful caramel making business, he began to experiment with making chocolate with milk.

He later sold the caramel business for $1 million and in 1900 introduced Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar. In 1903, he built a new chocolate factory in the middle of a cornfield in what is now Hershey, Penn. Hershey is near the state capitol of Harrisburg and not far from Lancaster, home of Pennsylvania’s large Amish colonies.

Hershey not only built a factory, he also built a town. He built reasonably-priced houses for his workers and insisted they buy the houses, but his company provided affordable financing. But the town needed more than just houses. Schools, churches, a bank and a store were built. He later built an amusement park, golf courses, a zoo and an outdoor theater.

The Hershey Chocolate Co. continued to grow rapidly and make bigger and bigger profits. Milton Hershey and his wife Catherine couldn’t possibly spend all the money they had.

The Hersheys had not been able to have children, and in 1909, Catherine suggested they start a home for orphan boys. Milton thought it was a great idea for the boys to go to school and learn a trade. That way they could support themselves when they finished school. The boys worked hard for their education, learning how to farm.

Fast-forward to today. The Milton Hershey School is the country’s largest pre-kindergarten through 12th grade home and school for boys and girls from families of low income and social need. All students attend free of charge and receive housing, education, clothing and meals as well as medical, dental, religious, psychological and other services.

My son Barry and I were given a tour of the “Founders Hall” by an alumnus of the school and a former employee of the Hershey company. One of the men told us that many of the 1,850 students are what he called “social” orphans who may have a single parent who cannot afford to keep them. Many of the students continue to have a relationship with their parents, even though they live in one of more than 195 homes on the 10,000 – acre school property.

While over the years the school has been “home” to kids from 32 states, most come from Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. More than half the students have a brother or sister at the school. The average family income is less than $13,000 per year.

Of the class of 2012, 87 percent went to college. The school provides scholarships for those who want to continue their education. The school has 7,311 living alumni, many of them leaders in business, education and the military.

Catherine Hershey died in 1915 at the age of 42 after a long illness. Milton Hershey died in 1945 at the age of 88, but not before he saw his company produce millions of specially designed candy bars for Allied troops in World War II. The bars, called “Field Ration D” were developed by Hershey at the request of the United States military.

Today, the Milton Hershey School has an endowment of $7.5 billion. Profits from Hershey sales throughout the world are funneled into the school’s operations.

Milton Hershey was a doer, not a philosopher. He believed wealth should be used for the benefit of others, and he practiced what he preached. He realized that good works are also good business.

So, the next time you pick up a Hershey bar or buy a bag of Hershey’s Kisses or Reese’s Pieces for the trick-or-treaters, you know that your money has been well spent to help others.

And, if you get the opportunity, visit Hershey, Penn. It’s a sweet treat.

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