Benneville "Ben" Strohecker, Sr. 88, longtime resident of Marblehead, MA and the founder of Harbor Sweets in Salem, MA, passed away peacefully Tuesday evening, April 19, 2016 at the Hathorne Hill Rehabilitation Center in Danvers, MA.
Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Benneville was the son of the late Herman and Virginia (Whitman) Strohecker. In the summer of 1945, Ben finagled his way into the army, convincing his high school principal to give him his diploma early, so that the army would accept him. He was sent to Germany, repatriating German prisoners of war and spent much time in France. At the completion of his tour, Ben wrote his father that he was having such a good time, he was thinking of reenlisting. Ben’s father’s response was cryptic: “Like hell you’re going to reenlist; get your tail back here the minute your duty is over.” Ben was a graduate and loyal supporter of Penn State University. After graduation, Ben embarked on a career in marketing, working for the Bachman Pretzel Company of Pennsylvania, Johnson & Johnson’s Bondex Company, the Keebler Biscuit Company, where he rose to the position of Director of Marketing Development and Long Range Planning, eventually ending up at the Schrafft Candy Company of Boston as their Director of Marketing. In the early seventies, Ben decided to branch out on his own, attempting to buy Stowaway Sweets of Marblehead. Learning the company was not for sale, Ben decided he’d try it on his own, and began making chocolates in the basement of his home. Initially he hired friends and neighborhood children to help him out on a part-time basis, a practice he carried on when the company, Harbor Sweets, moved to its present location in Salem, MA. By 1988 Harbor Sweets was a $2-million-a-year business, and Ben was “winning accolades for his management style, not to mention his chocolates,” as quoted in an article written by Annie Driscoll, published in the New York Times on March 20, 1988. To quote from the 1988 NY Times article: “Of the 150 Harbor Sweets employees, more than half are disabled, elderly, students, mothers or those who speak English as a second language. Nearly every employee works part time, choosing their own duties and 20 hour schedule; all employees are encouraged to offer suggestions for improving operations, and everyone can eat as many chocolates as they want. We have hired people who have been disabled without really knowing how they were going to be productive, said the 60 year old Mr. Strohecker. And there’s always been some miracle that’s happened so they’ve found ways to contribute. We count on that.” Harbor Sweets was also the focus for a lengthy article in INC Magazine, entitled “Management by Trust” and the lead food writer for the New York Times, Florence Fabricant, was intrigued with the little Harbor Sweets factory. Harbor Sweets was a lead story on WCVB-TV’s Chronicle, as well as many other TV stations, and Ben was interviewed by NPR’s Susan Stamberg. Ben said his business style was influenced by his wife Martha, who, at the time, was working with the disabled for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He and Martha met in 1980, when they were active with Bishop Coburn raising funds for the Episcopal Diocese of Boston, and Ben often referred to his faith as having a profound effect on his labor practices. In 1988, Ben was invited to a celebratory banquet at Anthony’s Pier 4 restaurant to announce the formation of the American Institute of Food and Wine, of which Julia Child and Robert Mondavi were founding members. At the conclusion of the dinner, Ben suggested to Julia Child that the Institute, in order to reach its full potential (in Ben’s words,) should focus on reaching out, such as helping to work on world hunger. That casual remark became the seed for a fund raiser, of which Ben was chairman, to benefit AIDS victims and their families, held at the Boston Garden on September 25, 1988, a $250 per person event attended by 800 patrons, many of them government and civic dignitaries and CEOs of Boston’s business community. The following year, Ben took a sabbatical, with the purpose of assuring Phyllis LeBlanc, Ben’s heir-apparent, she would be more than capable of running the business. It should be noted that in the years leading up to Ben’s retirement from active participation at Harbor Sweets, of which he was sole proprietor at the time, he received several buyout offers from large corporations. These offers would have had a sizable impact on Ben’s net worth, but they were all rejected, clear and concrete evidence of Ben’s ideology. Ben suspected a sale would most likely have resulted in Harbor Sweets being relocated and would have impacted the lives of all his employees. Today, Harbor Sweets is being competently and ably presided over by current owner and CEO Phyllis LeBlanc, who continues the labor practices Ben initiated. Phyllis LeBlanc recalled recently how she was hired by Ben, at the age of 17, to be a chocolate dipper. She was puzzled when Ben asked her if she played the piano. He was looking for indications of her finger dexterity. Instead of taking a year off “feeding the hungry,” as he’d anticipated, he was taken on as a “loaned executive” by the National Leadership Coalition on AIDS.
In 2013, Ben founded an organization named Encore, composed of individuals from the North Shore, with the intent of using the talents of retirees to make the world a better place. He was recognized by North Shore Elder Services in November 2014, at their annual “We Give Thanks Award Recipients Dinner,” receiving the “Positive Aging Role Model Award.” Unfortunately, Ben suffered a stroke in April 2014, and was not able to accept the award in person. But a group of friends arranged to have the award presented to Ben at the Hathorne Hill Rehabilitation Center, an event reported on by Alan Burke, in a December 2, 2014 Salem News article. “Ben Strohecker isn’t easily stopped. He told the story yesterday of his stint as an employee for Bachman Pretzel Company. The owners hired an industrial psychologist to interview we young guys to see if we had any potential. It wasn’t until 11 years later, as he prepared to move on to another company, that Strohecker was given the interview results. You better keep Strohecker challenged, the psychologist had written, because he’s the kind of guy - if he’s not challenged, he’ll dig a hole just to see if he can find a way out.” In retirement, Ben took up painting and became an accomplished artist and exhibited at many art shows and galleries on the North Shore. In 2013 Ben wrote and illustrated a children’s book entitled “The Day the Ocean Changed to Chocolate.” and more recently “The Day the Children Discovered Chocolate,” which is awaiting publication. Ben was an avid sailer and a longtime member of the Eastern Yacht Club. His other interest was tennis and The Whiting Club. Over the course of his life, Ben received many awards and citations for his philanthropic activities and received an honorary doctorate from Salem State University. Perhaps the reminiscence of Ben’s oldest friend, Dr. John Gallen, best describes Ben. “Ben was a unique individual, many faceted. In our youth he was a practical joker, a serious student, a tinkerer with a musical and poetic bent. He was a "proper young man" (his mother's son), and a lover of the outdoors and a "down to earth regular guy" (his father's son). He was an entrepreneur, an inventor, a salesman, an author and above all a good friend and my mentor at Bachman Bakeries before I went into medicine.” He will be remembered for his wit and dry sense of humor, but perhaps most for the bona fide effect he had on so many people.
He is survived by his loving wife of 30 years, Martha, of Brooksby Village, Peabody, MA, two sons, Benneville Strohecker, Jr. of Yuma, AZ and Samuel Strohecker and his wife, Melissa, of Cranberry Twp, PA and their daughter, Krista Sauve Miller, and her husband, Jeffrey Miller, Jr. of Zelienople, PA; a daughter, Sara Clarkson, and her husband Bill, grandchildren Westley, Abigael, Douglas and Margaret of Westfield, NJ; sister Tanie Strohecker White and her children, Tanie Griffin and Joseph Sharkey of Hudson, OH.
A memorial service celebrating the life of Ben Strohecker will be held at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 705 Hale Street, Beverly Farms, MA on Friday, July 1, 016 at 11 AM. In lieu of flowers, donations in Ben Strohecker’s name may be made to North Shore Elder Services, 300 Rosewood Drive, Danvers, MA. 01923 - www.nselder.org