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'Behind The Chocolate Curtain'

Rogers Man Reveals Life In Milton Hershey School

By Marla Hinkle


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 School.

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 confectioneries magnate.

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 social need.

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 love.

"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 the community."

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, Kerstetter said.

"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 three years.

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 world.

"When we graduated and began working in industry, our first paychecks made us feel like millionaires after 25 cents' weekly pay."

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, Kerstetter said.

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 said.

"(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 said.

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 own.

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 one hour.

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 Livermore, Calif.

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 behind.

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 friendly."

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 people."

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