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Book World: 'In Chocolate We Trust': Bittersweet tale of Hershey's philanthropy

| Saturday, April 14, 2018, 7:10 p.m.

The town of Hershey, Pa., manages to be somehow typically American and utterly unique, rich in symbolic undertones, freighted with a complex history and an uncertain future. Billed as “The Sweetest Place on Earth,” the town was founded in the early 20th century by Milton Hershey as part of the chocolate company that bears his name — a genuinely iconic and resolutely independent American business.

Now native son and Princeton-trained anthropologist Peter Kurie examines the community, the company and its history in his book “In Chocolate We Trust: The Hershey Company Town Unwrapped.”

Hershey started his company with the simple and unbeatable idea that chocolate could be manufactured cheaply and sold widely, rather than being a niche delicacy for the rich. A strict Mennonite, he founded the town of Hershey, which included a school for the education of orphans, along vaguely communitarian lines, a conception that became central to Hershey's mythology and appeal.

The town was a bizarre cross between a Disney-fied ideal picket-fence America and a company town owned by an eccentric if benevolent patriarch: a shotgun marriage of the national strains of utopian communitarianism and good old-fashioned corporate ideology. To the outsider, the sense of identification borders on the creepy. Longtime residents still refer to the founder as “Mr. Hershey” or even “Milt,” as though Hershey, who died in 1945, had just stepped out for a moment.

In Kurie's telling, what makes the Hershey empire both so durable and so fraught are the unusual terms of Hershey's trust, which is “an outlier among charities.”

Hershey is a publicly traded corporation owned in perpetuity by a nonprofit trust. That unwieldy and deeply unorthodox arrangement contains a probably unsustainable legal contradiction. “In Chocolate We Trust” thus largely concerns itself with two countervailing dynamics: the ambivalence that long-term residents feel about changing demographics and values, and the so far unsuccessful attempts of external investors to pry Hershey out of the trust's control and supercharge its financial performance.

Kurie's brand of ethnography entails a lot of simple listening to folks talk. Along the way, the reader meets a manager for Hershey's new corporate social responsibility department who spews just-north-of-parody nonsense about the “halo effect on our brand equity” and how “positive goodwill for the corporation ultimately enhances shareholder value.” A legal scholar named Robert Sitkoff repeatedly insists the trust's failure to sell the company to the highest bidder, consequences be damned, is an “outrageous” moral failure.

Kurie also talks to a former executive who drolly says working for Hershey meant “you weren't a 100 percent capitalist pig” and a quartet of Clinton-voting “Hillary Girls” who miss the days when Hershey School “students would visit with local people for dinner on weekends,” in a golden age before an unspecified “they” took over and “started to close the school in.”

Kurie does not put it quite this way, but his book conveys the sense of an institution that is caught between eras: It cannot remain stuck in the sepia-toned twilight of its Christian-charity origins, but it remains stoutly resistant to corporate raiders.

The latter possibility was at least temporarily forestalled by the 2002 “Derail the Sale” campaign, in which the sale of Hershey to Wrigley was sidelined by the work of a vocal and well-organized grass-roots protest movement, resulting in the intervention of the Pennsylvania attorney general. Veterans of that campaign look fondly upon their success and concede it is probably unduplicable, leaving the Hershey Co. permanently vulnerable to future corporate depredations.

“In Chocolate We Trust” tells a great story, pertinent and fascinating, although Kurie's careful anthropological approach possibly mishandles it. The book sometimes feels like what would have been a good piece of long-form journalism straining to expand into a scholarly framework. Kurie's conclusions about Hershey display measured good sense: No, a fiduciary responsibility does not mean the trust is obligated to sell; yes, the Hershey School could be better run. “The trust's control of the chocolate company,” Kurie writes, “warrants both preservation and cultivation.”

Less convincing is Kurie's attempt to frame the story of Milton Hershey as being “as relevant as ever” because of his status as a forerunner to men like Bill Gates, whom Kurie cites as “a paragon of the twenty-first-century entrepreneur-philanthropist.” With all due respect to Kurie, the comparison is ill-conceived. For better or worse, unlike the new breed of businessmen-philanthropers, Hershey restricted his beneficence to a very local ambit. The Hershey School specifically gives priority to at-need children who live in Dauphin County. Whatever else you say about Milt, he understood his people.

Michael Lindgren is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.

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