School Choice & Charters

Alumni, Administrators Lock Horns At Hershey School

By Catherine Gewertz — December 13, 2000 6 min read
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As children, taken in by the little school for ophans in Pennsylvania’s gentle farmland, they found both a surrogate family they never thought possible and a path to a brighter future.

Now, as adults, a small band of alumni from the Milton Hershey School is waging a very grown-up battle against the school’s administration over the finances, philosophy, and future of the institution that irrevocably changed their lives.

What began last year as a discreet inquiry by the alumni group into how the nation’s richest orphanage spends its money has escalated into a pitched and very public war involving the state’s top law-enforcement officer. It has become an emotional, symbolic struggle over intention and interpretation, a painful pull between the old and the new.

At the heart of the dispute is some graduates’ contention that the school’s current administration is spending money from a $5 billion trust in ways that violate the original wishes of the chocolate manufacturer Milton S. Hershey. He and his wife founded the 1,160-student school in Hershey, Pa., about 90 miles west of Philadelphia, in 1909.

The alumni group objects, as well, to a philosophical shift that it says has transformed student life from a unique, farm-based experience into that of a common boarding school.

“Mr. Hershey had no children, so he wanted to make the orphan boys his family, and he wanted his money used to benefit them,” said Virginia lawyer John F. Mardula, a 1969 graduate and a leader in the fight against the school’s administration. “We are a family, even if we’ve been out of there for 30 years. Those children who go there now are my brothers and sisters. And what is going on there now is not what he would have wanted.”

School officials, for their part, say they have used the Hershey money in ways they are sure their benefactor would have approved of: to benefit children not only in the school, but in the larger community as well. They say they still serve very needy children—paying for everything from tuition to haircuts—and that they have modernized campus life to better prepare their charges for a 21st-century future.

“The world is changing around us, and the world they face is very different than the one they faced when the school began, in an agrarian society,” said Dr. C. McCollister Evarts, the chairman of both the trust and the school’s board of managers. “One of the problems is that some of the alumni are very resistant to change.”

Distorted Dream?

It was the school’s plan last year to use $50 million of the trust fund money to build and operate a teacher-training institute that alarmed some alumni. Combing through archival documents, they concluded that such a use of funds would violate Mr. Hershey’s intent that the money be used for children whose parents were dead or could no longer care for them.

They enlisted the aid of Pennsylvania Attorney General D. Michael Fisher, who has policing power over charitable organizations. Mr. Fisher concluded that the plan was at odds with Mr. Hershey’s intentions. He opposed it in court, and a judge agreed last December, essentially killing the proposal.

But the alumni have pressed on with a list of what they say are misdeeds over the years that have distorted Mr. Hershey’s original dream. Among their grievances is an episode in 1963, when trust managers won court permission—with no public notice and no opposition—to use $50 million to build a medical center for Pennsylvania State University.

Stung by the alumni association’s accusations of wrongdoing, the school hired Richard L. Thornburgh, the former U.S. attorney general and Pennsylvania governor, to examine its spending. His 60-page report issued in September said the school had done nothing illegal.

Dr. Evarts argues that the medical center project— financed by a huge surplus of trust fund income—was perfectly legal, having won the approval of the state attorney general and a judge. He said the facility has served Milton Hershey’s students when they were ill and those who went on to become medical students there, as well as many poor children from the surrounding community.

But the report hasn’t appeased alumni. They met again with Attorney General Fisher last week, presenting a list of actions they believe to be at odds with Mr. Hershey’s vision, and they asked him to investigate the trust’s actions. Mr. Fisher would not comment on the meeting, but his spokesman, Sean Connolly, said the attorney general would consider the alumni group’s grievances. School officials met separately with representatives of Mr. Fisher’s office.

John F. Halbleib, a Chicago lawyer and alumnus who represented the former students at the meeting, said the Hershey School had “abandoned” its duty, as expressed by Mr. Hershey, to care for truly dependent children.

He and other former students complain that the school accepts too many young boys and girls from two-parent homes and maintain that the school has used its money for unnecessary projects, such as centralizing the campus, instead of expanding it to serve even more needy children.

“The Milton Hershey School has failed thousands of dependent children because [it is] not using [its] resources to help those [it was] intended to help,” Mr. Halbleib asserted.

A New Vision

But the school’s president, William L. Lepley, a former Iowa state commissioner of education, strongly disagreed. He said that the children in preschool through 12th grade, that the school admits—those whose family incomes are 150 percent of the federal poverty line or less—are needy by definition.

In addition, he said, the school is indeed expanding, with plans to serve 1,500 children by 2006. Those efforts cannot proceed any more quickly, he said, because of the difficulty of recruiting well-qualified teachers and house parents and of building new living quarters. Mr. Lepley said the school also plans to expand its efforts to serve even more children, either on campus or elsewhere.

Still, the place the alumni knew has changed dramatically. The stone farm houses they lived in, scattered over thousands of acres, are being phased out in favor of a rebuilt, centralized campus that allows students to walk to class.

The trades they learned, like carpentry and printing, are now de-emphasized in favor of academics. The farm program, which former students say taught them discipline by requiring them to rise before dawn to milk cows and stack hay, is disappearing.

And some alumni bemoan what they see as a lessened commitment to serving poor, troubled children; to get in, students must have no significant behavioral problems, and scores of average or higher on standardized tests.

Today, 85 percent of the school’s students come from single-parent homes, and 15 percent are being raised by both parents or by other guardians, Mr. Lepley said. Very few are biological orphans, and fewer than a dozen are wards of the state.

Timeless Goals

“I’m against what they’re doing over there,” said Richard E. Dewalt, 65, a retired Hershey Co. factory worker who attended the school in the 1940s and thought of Milton Hershey as his godfather for providing him the tools for a new life after his father died. “They’re making it into more of a prep school, and that’s not what Mr. Hershey wanted it to be.”

But many of the school’s 7,000 alumni support the changes.

John “Mack” Aichele, 79, a 1939 graduate who worked at the school for 42 years as teacher, president, and board member, noted that since the late 1960s, the school has expanded admission to children of both genders and all races and ethnicities, as well as to those from divorced and single- parent homes. Alumni who oppose changes such as the end of the farm program are simply too sentimentally attached to an antiquated practice, he said.

While the school has changed substantially in some ways, Mr. Lepley says, the basic, most important elements of the experience remain the same.

“Since the beginning of this place, what we do here and what we stand for has never changed,” he said. “We still build character and a sense of responsibility—we just do it differently today.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as Alumni, Administrators Lock Horns At Hershey School

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