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Ex-Hershey Students Unhappy

November 27, 2000

HERSHEY, Pa. (AP) _ Chris Ortiz was growing up poor in New York City when he was sent to the Milton Hershey School in 1993. His mother was on welfare. Dad was gone.

Six years later, Ortiz graduated as co-valedictorian, and now attends the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

``That school is the greatest thing in my life,″ Ortiz said of his alma mater, founded by chocolate baron Milton S. Hershey in 1909 as an orphans’ home.

That’s why, Ortiz said, he supports a group of older alumni in a bitter battle against the school’s managers, who double as overseers of its $5 billion trust fund _ one of the largest in the world.

The struggle, alumni say, is over Hershey’s legacy, and his vision of nurturing needy children by raising them in a rural, roll-up-your-sleeves atmosphere _ a vision they say is being betrayed.

Administrators counter the complaints, saying the school needs to keep up with the times.

Ortiz said he began to understand why the leaders of the Milton Hershey School Alumni Association are so upset when he got word that the school had hired an outside company to mow its lawns _ instead of teaching students to do it.

``Cutting grass was one of my chores, and it added something to me,″ said Ortiz, who graduated last year. ``I don’t know why. Maybe because I’m a city kid.″

The 1,163 students in grades K-12 who live at the school are provided free room, board and clothing; juniors and seniors are also given laptop computers. They all are still required to do chores, including helping prepare and clean up after meals.

Yet changes _ among them a reduced emphasis on vocational programs, a huge campus construction project and the moving of children from charming old farm homes into new brick ranch houses clustered around a central campus _ have prompted questions.

School officials say the $230 million campus consolidation project is necessary because they intend to increase enrollment to 1,500 students by 2006. They also note that changes to the school’s deed of trust are first approved by the county orphans’ court.

But that hasn’t assuaged some of the school’s 7,000 living alumni.

``There has been a move to take the school away from its roots and make it into a prep school,″ said Ralph Carfagno, 45, a 1973 alumnus who works in Hershey.

``Mr. Hershey designed it so kids would live all over the place,″ he said. ``He put us on farms for a reason, where there was some semblance of a home life. You became a little more confident, a little stronger.″

Alumni leaders are calling for the state attorney general to investigate.

The school’s administrators and managers _ several of whom are alumni _ acknowledge making changes and exploring new ways to spend the cash they have accumulated from the trust’s stock holdings in Hershey Foods Co. and Hershey Entertainment and Resorts.

But they brush aside other criticism as coming from a few alumni leaders who hold blindly to tradition, and who do not speak for the majority of graduates.

``A lot of people like to invoke Milton Hershey’s name, including me. Would he like everything we’re doing? I don’t know. But I think he would be proud that this board is trying to be progressive,″ said William Lepley, the school’s president.

Lepley points to a 98-page report written by a panel headed by former Pennsylvania governor and former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. Thornburgh’s law firm investigated whether the trust’s intent has been violated. Released in September, the report concludes no laws were broken.

Differences aside, there is little doubt much has changed at the children’s home since Hershey and his wife, who were childless, opened what was originally the Hershey Industrial School on 500 acres.

Hershey first helped only poor white boys in his or neighboring towns, but as the trust grew, the school began accepting orphans from other parts of Pennsylvania, and eventually from out of state.

The school expanded as Hershey bought dozens of farms and homes surrounding his chocolate works. Before his death in 1945, the trust had acquired 10,000 acres. Nonwhites were admitted in 1970, and female students and ``social orphans″ _ children with one or both parents living, but with limited means _ were admitted six years later.

Alumni leaders say they realize they are taking on the directors of one of the richest trusts in the world _ one to which, many of them admit, they owe their own success.

``This is what Mr. Hershey would have wanted,″ contended John Halbleib, a lawyer and 1971 graduate of the school. ``What better group to move it forward than those whose lives he changed?″


On the Net:

Milton Hershey School: http://www.hershey.pvt.k12.pa.us/

Milton Hershey School Alumni Association: http://www.mhsaa.org

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