Remembering Ben Strohecker
When I heard the news this week that Ben Strohecker ’50, the founder of Harbor Sweets in Salem, Mass., had died, I immediately thought about what a delightful man he was—how much the employees at his candy company loved him, how gracious he was when we profiled him nearly 20 years ago, how he turned to writing books for children later in life. Ben also was a life member of the Alumni Association and a regular reader of The Penn Stater, and over the years, when we’d do something in the magazine that especially pleased him, he’d send us a box of chocolates out of the blue.
Ben’s death also made me think immediately of Vicki Glembocki ’93, ’02g, our former associate editor, whom we had sent to Massachusetts to report and write that profile of Ben back in 1997. I knew he had made an impact on her. So I asked Vicki if she’d be willing to write a short remembrance of him. An hour later, she sent me this:
In my career so far, there is only one article I’ve written that I wish I could go back and re-write, and that is the profile I wrote for The Penn Stater in 1997 of Benneville Strohecker. Before I even flew to Marblehead, Mass., to interview Ben, as he was known, I’d decided what his story was: a Reading, Pa., kid heads to Penn State, gets a degree in arts and letters, and then founds a chocolate factory, Harbor Sweets, in New England, because what else could one do with a name like “Benneville Strohecker.” Only one other name might be better suited … Willy Wonka. Am I right?
I was right about Ben, who passed away at the age of 88 on April 19. He was born to make chocolate, a sweet man with a sweet calling who made sweet things happen. For years, he sent me a box of Sweet Sloops during the holidays because I must have eaten 32 of those hand-made almond buttercrunch toffees while I was interviewing him. And he remembered that. Because that’s who he was. And that made for a perfect story.
But the thing that made Ben Strohecker an extraordinary man was not his Wonka-ness, as I discovered while we ate lobster rolls for lunch at his sailing club on my last day in Marblehead. He told me there about how, at 70 years old, he had changed, how he used to be racist, how he used to be sexist, how he used to be homophobic and then, thanks in part to his wife, Martha, opening his eyes, he realized, simply, that he was wrong. In fact, he had become an activist for AIDS awareness. I remember sitting there, looking at his kind face, hearing the humbleness in his voice, and feeling inspired: If this guy can change, can’t anyone?
But I didn’t write that story. I wrote the Willy Wonka one. Years and years later, I called Ben to tell him how sorry I was that I missed the opportunity to tell the real story about him, the one he deserved. And he laughed, then told me he’d retired and was painting and was writing children’s books. Because, well, of course he was. Then, a few days later, I went to my mailbox and found inside a box of Sweet Sloops. —VG
Tina Hay, editor