Whenever things weren’t going well at the office, Milton Hershey, the chocolate czar, always got his mind off his troubles the same way. “He’d ask to be driven over to the school so he could play with the kids on the lawn,” recalls Bill Dearden, who was one of those kids in the ’30s. “We thought Mr. Hershey was 10 feet tall, and that he had a drinking fountain and a toilet in his big black limousine. Because of him, we never thought of ourselves as poor orphans. His school taught us the value of hard work and discipline.”
For William E.C. Dearden, now 53, it paid off. The former “home boy,” as all alumni of the Milton Hershey School for orphans in Hershey, Pa. are called, was named vice-chairman and chief executive officer of the Hershey Foods Corporation last March. (Hershey himself died in 1945). Now Dearden has a unique opportunity to repay his debt. Hershey Foods, with sales of $556 million, is the world’s largest manufacturer of chocolate and cocoa products, and roughly 65 percent of its stock is held in trust for the Hershey School. “All of us know we’re working for more than just profit,” says the cheerful, 6’5″, 215-pound Dearden, who earns an annual salary of $125,000. “We can see where our profits are going—to support 1,300 orphans. With my background, that’s an important satisfaction to me.”
Dearden owned little more than the shirt and knickers he was wearing the day in 1935 he arrived at the school. He was 13. His mother had died and his father was unemployed with two younger children to support in Philadelphia. Dearden recalls that first day: “It was like Christmas all over again.” He was given new shoes and his first pair of long pants, and he sat down to a meal that seemed like a feast—creamed rice and apple pie. (“It was like getting two desserts.”)
Then, as now, the school took care of the boys’ room, board, tuition, clothing, medical and dental expenses—and even provided a weekly allowance that has gone from 25¢ in Dearden’s day to $1. “All of the boys come here from rough backgrounds,” says Alfred Gibble, who was “Big Bill” Dearden’s basketball and football coach. “They’ve been shunted from pillar to post. The Hershey School is very demanding, and if you survive it you’re a pretty good man.”
After Hershey, Dearden went on to Albright College in Reading, Pa., where he met and married fellow student Mary Kline in 1944, the year of his graduation. After tours with the Navy and Dun & Bradstreet, Dearden took Al Gibble’s advice and returned to the school as assistant business manager. It was a small step from there to the corporation itself, where he began as assistant to the chairman.
Today Dearden presides over a chocolate-covered empire that would bedazzle Willie Wonka. In addition to the famous Hershey bars (which have gone from a nickel to 15¢ in the past seven years) and Candy Kisses, the company sells Krackles, Mr. Goodbars and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, among other goodies.
A constant nibbler on Hershey products, Dearden confesses his favorite treats are chocolate cake and chocolate pie. He keeps his weight under control by jogging every morning, golfing on weekends and fishing off the Deardens’ new seaside house in Ocean City, New Jersey.
But Hershey comes first, and Dearden is forever spreading the word. “You can tell I’m a salesman,” he says. “I never run out of gas.” Gibble has another explanation for the boss’s enthusiasm: “Bill is a home boy. And he always will be.”