Rogers Man Reveals Life In Milton Hershey School
By Marla Hinkle
THE MORNING NEWS • MHINKLE@NWAONLINE.NET
ROGERS -- Jack Kerstetter is a Hershey boy at heart. A quick
glance around his Rogers home reveals pieces like a model Hershey
trolley car, tins and a plastic replica of a Hershey's Kiss. Just
pull its tag, and the chocolates roll out.
Kerstetter reaches out to demonstrate, his fingers touching the
foil-wrapped kisses. The light catches one of the man's rings
bearing the initials H.I.S., which stand for Hershey Industrial
He is a stockholder in the company, but the 76-year-old's
interests concentrate on matters more personal than money.
Kerstetter is a "son" of Milton Hershey, the chocolate
He counts himself among thousands of Hershey children who
attended the Milton Hershey School for underprivileged boys. Hershey
and his wife, Catherine, were unable to have children and wanted to
make a difference in young people's lives.
In 1910, the first boys enrolled in the Milton Hershey School,
then called the Hershey Industrial School, established with the
signing of the deed of trust Nov. 15, 1909.
Today, the Milton Hershey School is the largest residential
pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school in the United States.
The school provides free education, career training, housing,
clothing, meals, health care and counseling to more than 1,300
racially and ethnically diverse boys and girls in financial and
The boyhood Kerstetter experienced at the Hershey school was not
one of drab orphanages and cold bowls of porridge, but it was far
from ordinary. He's detailed some poignant moments in a memoir,
"Behind The Chocolate Curtain."
In an excerpt, he shares his feelings on the school:
"This is what I've called 'The Chocolate Curtain.' A place set
apart from the outside world, not as a fence around any school, or
as a stone wall separating East and West Berlin, but just an
invisible curtain founded by a man who had an idea and shared his
"I've lived behind 'The Chocolate Curtain' many years, from very
early life until graduation as a young man, trained in a vocation,
ready to take my position in a world of constant progress."
The world has moved on since Kerstetter's time at the school. His
60th graduation anniversary will be in 2005.
Alumni from the school visit each year around the time of
Hershey's birthday. About 1,500 people meet in Founder's Hall to
remember past students and receive a memento.
When he visits every two years, Kerstetter is met with change.
On his last visit, Kerstetter said that most dairy farms were
gone since the Pennsylvania Board of Governors said orphans are not
the staff members' children, so they can't put them to work on the
farms. Also, orphans were not encouraged to train in the chocolate
factory. If they wanted a job, they could apply after graduation.
Kerstetter's memories are filled with more than just working in
the dairy.All vocational trades were taught.Kerstetter was in charge
of the dairy and learned carpentry.
The soft-spoken man with smooth gray hair, neat clothes and
quiet, precise diction teared up several times when talking about
his childhood at the "nice two-story white farmhouse."
Kerstetter recalled Hershey as frugal and as someone who expected
the boys to save their allowance money. He allowed people who had
been in the school to be stockholders.
"Hershey was a great humanitarian. When builders told him he
could get a big machine to build the school that would equal the
work of 40 men, Hershey told them to have 40 men do the job,"
Kerstetter said. "He wanted to give people in town jobs and build
Hershey endured his own trials in starting the business,
Kerstetter said. He traveled from his Pennsylvania farm all over the
world, perfecting the art of candy making.
Hershey failed three times in establishing his business, and once
was completely ruined when a horse-drawn trolley car smashed his
factory wagon in downtown Philadelphia. His aunt in New York loaned
him about $400 to start his business.
A New Life
Born in Shamokin, Pa., Kerstetter and his two brothers were
separated when he was 5. Kerstetter's father died in 1929, and his
mother was left with three children and little prospects for a job.
"My mother threatened to kill us and herself if she couldn't find
a place for us to live," Kerstetter said.
So he and his brother Albert were placed at Hershey Industrial
School, although in different classes because they were different
ages, and their brother Bobbie was sent to Girard College.
Life was sweet -- both figuratively and literally -- Kerstetter
remembers, and he recalls his entry into the school in a portion
from his book. His earliest memory on Nov. 15, 1932, emerged with
Mrs. Shiftler, a motherly lady who asked his name. He told her and
followed her instructions.
A bath came first, possibly the first he'd ever had. Next, a
haircut and delousing, teeth brushing and a new wardrobe consisting
of short pants, long stockings, brown shoes and a little tweed
jacket and cap.
At the time, Kerstetter didn't realize he would enjoy and hate
such tender moments for a full 12 years, four months and seven days
of his life, he said.
Strict discipline was a big part of the school's rules since
Hershey was a Mennonite. Religious views were not slanted,
"Hershey felt each boy should get to know his own God, whether he
was Protestant, Catholic or Hebrew."
However, all pupils were required to attend one main church.
After those services, they could go to the church of their choice.
A demerit system, rather than physical punishment, promoted good
conduct. To keep track of transgressions, housefathers carried a
small book in their shirt pockets and put marks behind a child's
name. Kerstetter got seven demerits the whole time he was there, for
violations like forging names for the boys' passes.
While Kerstetter was in one of the homes, his housefather gave
him two spoons of castor oil as punishment. And since Kerstetter's
name was usually in the book, he said he was never constipated for
Pupils worked as part of a structured program and were paid. A
graduated scale of allowances was set with 12-year-olds getting 25
cents and at 15, earning 50 cents. Hershey taught the boys about
budgeting and determined half their allowances should go directly
into a savings account.
Orphans lived on one of 40 100-acre farms and awoke at 5:15 a.m.,
changing their pajamas to overalls to milk the 30 dairy cows and
return at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast. A long walk down the lane led
them to the trolley that transported them to high school.After
school, they returned again to milk cows and perform other farm
duties until supper. The hard work prepared Kerstetter for the real
"When we graduated and began working in industry, our first
paychecks made us feel like millionaires after 25 cents' weekly
Upon graduation, each student received a $100 check from Hershey,
who had $100 sewn into the lining of his coat as he traveled and
learned more about making candy.
Therefore, he felt when each boy graduated, or left at 18, he
would start them off with the same amount.
Overall, life at the school was good for Kerstetter. They always
had food, even during The Great Depression.
"We grew our own food and raised turkeys ... the only thing we
didn't have was coffee, but we had sugar because Mr. Hershey had his
own plantation," Kerstetter said.
Friendly competition among the farms awarded winners ice cream
for the best milk production. Kerstetter sometimes learned about the
dairy through trial and error.
While making butter, he skimmed the cream off and put the
contents in a medicine jar. When he discovered he couldn't pour it
out, he had to melt it all down and start over.
The abundant food produced by students was during the Depression
when there were no welfare services or nonprofit organizations.
"One of the things I really admire about Mr. Hershey was how he
bore all the expenses for families."
Family was important to Hershey, despite the fact that many
orphans had been given up by relatives. He wanted them to reconnect,
Each Friday, the boys had to sit down and write a letter to their
families. Each student got a two-week vacation from school.
When Kerstetter visited his mother, she asked him if he was sorry
for what she had done.
"I said to her that I would have liked to have had a family but
also was not sorry because of my rich experience there."
Kerstetter's mother wrote a letter to President Harry Truman
asking for his deferment. In the letter, she explained how her boys
had been separated and sent to different homes. She wanted them to
spend more time together. Bobby Kerstetter would later be killed by
a German submarine blast during World War II.
It turns out that Kerstetter didn't have to worry about the
deferment he was granted. He was in the ninth grade in 1944, and the
school recommended an extra year because he'd skipped second grade
and was too young to go to war.
Hershey has been a lifesaver to Kerstetter and many others, he
"(Hershey) was supposed to travel on the Titanic, but Kitty, his
wife, became ill, and they weren't able to go. I think God saved
them so he could save all the children."
Hershey didn't make many personal appearances at the farms, but
Kerstetter did meet him. Hershey liked to visit town, and one day, a
group of about 10 boys were playing basketball when Hershey pulled
up in his car.
He asked them if they wanted to take a ride. The children didn't
know who he was and thought he was just an elderly man. He turned to
them and said, "Hi, I'm Mr. Hershey."
"He was so kind," Kerstetter said. "He died virtually penniless
because he left all his money to the school."
The trust is at about $6 billion now, and was at $88 million when
Hershey died Oct. 13, 1945. Seventy-six percent of all profits from
The Hotel Hershey, theme park and candy sales benefit the school.
Some of Kerstetter's best memories were ice skating and seeing
movies in town. The school remembered each boy on his birthday with
cake and a card.
The boys attended a few dances that gave them a chance to meet
girlfriends. Other activities included Boy Scouts and Glee Club.
They didn't wear a certain uniform on outings in Hershey, Pa., but
did have black shoes and short haircuts.
"People could tell you were a Hershey, boy ... neat," Kerstetter
The biggest blight on Kerstetter's experience was his
houseparent, who never had kids of his own. Today, the houseparents
must meet certain guidelines, including having children of their
Kerstetter remembers his housefather breaking the demerits rule
and using physical force. He was hit for cutting the fat off his
meat and throwing it into the field and allegedly saying a curse
word at a basketball game.
When the man found out Kerstetter rode in Hershey's car and was
late returning to the farm, he forced him to stand at attention for
Making His Mark
After Kerstetter graduated, he joined the Navy as an X-ray
technician. From there, he went on to Pittsburgh Business College
and enrolled in the Dale Carnegie Professional Speaking program. He
met his first wife, Julie, at the college, and the couple decided to
leave the East for a warmer climate.
They settled in California where he worked in the advertising
business for Osborne-Kemper-Thomas. He also worked as a special
agent for Pacific Telephone Co. and helped engineers develop a
hands-free phone using a mercury switch.
His passion for veterans' rights led people to give him the
moniker of "Col. Jack." His extensive knowledge led him to his
calling of veteran service officer for 14 years. He went before the
U.S. Senate in San Francisco to become a senior officer. His work
involved helping veterans' families.
He has two sons, Kerry and Kris. Kerry Kerstetter is a certified
public accountant in Harrison. Kris Kerstetter is a firefighter in
While living in California, Kerstetter heard about an opportunity
to work on a 10,000 acre sheep station and organic farm in
Australia. He and his wife thought it would be a good experience and
again, a warm climate. The work with 1,500 sheep ruined Kerstetter's
knees, he said, and when he wanted to return, his wife stayed
He divorced and found wanderlust still in his veins. The natural
beauty of Arkansas beckoned, and he moved to the state in 1993. He
met his wife, Margie, by chance, in a Branson restaurant. They
married in her Bentonville home, and then moved to their present
location in Rogers near Prairie Creek in a senior community.
Kerstetter collects Hershey products and has rows of tins and
model cars in the kitchen. Much of the couple's time is devoted to
volunteering at the Samaritan Community Center in Rogers.
Harry Hartley volunteers with Kerstetter at the center.
"He's caring, sharing and loving. He works at the front desk and
interacts well with people because he's a quiet person and really
They are members of the Starlight Ballroom Dancers in Bella Vista
and attend Fellowship Bible Church in Lowell in addition to services
at Samaritan House. Also, Kerstetter is a food demonstrator at Price
Cutter in Rogers. When Margie told him of her experience doing that,
he said, "No way. I'm not going to ask people to try samples."
But he found talking to people was a great job perk. People
usually enjoy hearing stories about his Hershey school days. Once,
when Kerstetter was asked to demonstrate at a Wal-Mart in
Huntsville, he refused payment for touting the Hershey line.
"I told them they didn't know how much it meant to me to talk
about Hershey products, but they insisted on paying."
He sold out the store's entire supply of Hershey goods.
Kerstetter said his children are proud of his education and
training. He feels it prepared him for the world.
"The greatest lesson I learned from being at the Hershey school
was how to get along with