In the midst of my typical fanboy excitement over the season finale of Mad Men, I was struck by a personal connection to the show I’ve loved, followed, and obsessed over for six seasons. As soon as I heard Don Draper was needed to pitch to Hershey Chocolate, my amateur brain full of pop culture references imploded.
Don Draper begins the pitch to Hershey chocolate with what we know as the viewer as a strong and predictable lie. Don drags out a tired story about a loving father rewarding a son for chores with enough change to pick up a Hershey bar, the most milquetoast deliveries from the candy aisle.
Any longtime viewer of Mad Men can explicitly see the artificiality in Don’s story. We know Don grew up in a whorehouse. We know Don’s (or should I say Dick’s) real father was killed by the hoof of a horse after it smashed his skull in. But the story Don gives is vanilla enough to convince the Hershey executives present that he has the chops necessary to represent such a revered corporation, one which would later use the slogan “You never forget your first love.”
However, as perennial alcoholic Don Draper begins to shake over his false words, he begins to tell the true relationship he has with Hershey’s Chocolate. After stopping the business meeting cold from his plasticine, domestic story about candy bars, Don begins his real journey:
“I was an orphan. I grew up in Pennsylvania in a whorehouse. I read about Milton Hershey and his school in (ineligible) magazine or whatever crap the girls left by the toilet. And I read that some orphans had a different life there. I could picture it. I dreamt of it. Of being wanted. Because the woman who was forced to raise me would look at me every day like she hoped I would disappear. The closest I got to feeling wanted was from a girl who would make me go through her jons’ pockets while they screwed. If I collected more than a dollar, she’d buy me a Hershey bar. And I would eat it–alone–in my room, with great ceremony, feeling like a normal kid. It said “sweet” on the packet. It was the only sweet thing in my life.”
As the Hershey executives reel from this story, one blurts out “You want me to advertise that?”
Don responds “If I had my way, you would never advertise.”
I can personally say with great confidence the Board of Trustees of Milton Hershey School did not nor would they ever sanction even the slightest mention of their institution within such a monologue as Don Draper gives and on such a dark program as Mad Men (though Hershey Foods executives seem pretty happy about the cameo). The Deed of Trust, authored by Milton Hershey himself, disregards all advertisements for the school. And yet, you can peel the wrapper of any Hershey bar to find this statement: “Every Hershey’s product you’ve enjoyed has helped support children in need through Milton Hershey School.”
I attended and graduated from Milton Hershey School, a charity like no other, It was founded in 1909 after Milton Hershey discovered his young wife, Catherine Hershey, could not support children (due to a case of syphilis which would later lead to her death, according to Michael D’Antonios history Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams.
The couple started with a small orphanage of 30 children on their Hershey, PA estate–as Don later tells his children,. They later began to train hundreds of orphans in trade skills and crafts in the hopes of graduating them to working lives. In all, Milton Hershey donated $30 million ($706 million in 2013 dollars) to the school, which still owns a 77% stock stake in Hershey Foods to this day, with an estimated endowment of over $8 billion.
I began attending Milton Hershey School (MHS) in January of 2002. My father had left us in Pennsylvania to escape a crack addiction and my mother was nearly too mentally incompetent to handle the overwhelming stress of two children, my older sister and myself. We had led poor lives our entire existence, as my mother dilapidated herself with prescription drugs and my father grew all the more distant. I could bore you with details of hundreds of roaches climbing the walls and eating boiled chicken delivered by a church, the constant visits of Child Welfare, our stay in a homeless shelter, the time my mother rushed us off to school at 5AM because the blinking VCR had convinced her it was noon, but why should I? These stories are a dime a dozen at MHS, and so would Don Draper’s story be. Also, I’ve told them before.
The school was a chocolate bubble of protection for the ultimately destitute. By the time I had greeted MHS, it had graduated from a trades school–where farm work and carpentry were tantamount–to a college-prep school, ready to use nearly unlimited wealth to transform the pogrom-dwellers of modern society into doctors, lawyers, and teachers. MHS is a sprawling suburban dream, manufactured student homes spread out over a 10,000 acre campus with a central location, the shining dome of Founder’s Hall.
Perhaps the most liberating aspect of MHS is the newfound respect you gain for your own struggles. Before I would graduate MHS in 2007, I had lost both my parents (my father to heart surgery and diabetes and my mother to a possibly intentional morphine overdose). This prompted a twisted version of nostalgia. Kind remembrances of my mother chain-smoking and working late shifts. Calm realizations that the surprise trip to Disneyland in Anaheim came from my father’s poker winnings. The slow, steady realization all too many a child must face when they see poverty described by the privileged.
Stories of destitution, orphanages, homelessness, and addiction were too widespread to count at MHS. While common, there was little less than a brotherhood in the aspects of our prior lives. When my father died and our houseparents (a married couple which looked over the 13 children in a student home) passed around a sympathy card, nearly every child offered some variation of “been there, done that.” It is a place full of optimism and yet full of destitute people, those who believed (and some who still believe) they are nothing more than their parents’ children, doomed to a life they’ve always known.
So watching Mad Men and especially through the last season, I and too many others were not struck with the agaped jaw of disgust at Dick Whitman’s past life. Nor did we brush these revelations aside with a jaded cynicism befitting many with extreme hardship in their past. We saw them as an all-too-familiar breakdown of the walls between our past and wretched lives and our current selves.
Upon leaving MHS, there is a universal feeling of both guilt and shame. I watched as roommate after roommate complained about student loans with a relief and distance, knowing I was able to attend college for free from both FAFSA and the Milton Hershey Continuing Education Scholarship. But at the same time, I came to realize I was not like the others. Not only were my high school experiences framed by the iron bars of MHS’ stern rules, but I struggled to relate with the focal problems in people’s lives. I entered my freshman year six months after burying my drug-addled mother. It is not a situation that prepares you to sympathize with someone who complains that the 1998 Honda Civic given to them by their parents does not have a multi-disc CD changer or their lack of response from a boyfriend on their latest heartfelt Facebook update. You leave MHS feeling both immensely rewarded and distraughtly alone, as if the privileged lives around you are incapable of nothing more than false sympathy after you’ve experienced years of true empathy. Even in writing for Thought Catalog, watching writer after writer give out nostalgia listicles, Don’s emotions ring throughout my skull. Like a Hershey bar, the cartoons and music of the 1990s were distant and dulled distractions from an early life full of turmoil and ultimately lacking love.
As the season six finale of Mad Men ends, we see Don Draper taking his children to the rundown location of the whorehouse which was the setting of his adolescence. My adolescence was full of arbitrary rules, marble columns, and the wealth of a dead chocolate magnate who wanted to make my life possible. I yearned for a young Dick Whitman throughout this episode. I wanted him to be able to experience the Milton Hershey School he read about. I wanted him to be amongst his own kind, the downtrodden who could make a quick joke about even the most cruel of circumstances.
To this day I have family and friends asking me if I know anyone in the admissions office, any string I can pull to get their children into such a wondrous institution. MHS is tuition-free and yet offers clothing, food, board, and a sizable college scholarship to all who graduate. Possibilities are nearly unlimited, with a practicing Boy Scout troop, a 4H Club, intramural sports of all kinds and, during my own attendance, even a philosophy club. With nearly unlimited financial resources, the school sponsors a Utopian dream to all but the most fiercely rebellious adolescent, sponsoring its own rock bands and the eternal rumors of an on-campus skate park.
But it is with trepidation I recommend MHS as a parental surrogate. While the financial benefits are obvious, many parents are forced apart by the ideal that they are giving up their children, admitting defeat in the face of odds society tells them again and again they should be able to face. But it is stories like Don Draper’s which remind me why MHS is often a necessary yet under-publicized resolution.
Don Draper obviously feels a chocolate bar is the only object which made him feel like a normal child. While an upbringing at MHS is far from normal, it can provide unlimited altitudes towards a normal adulthood. Our fast-forward society–from bobby-soxers to Beliebers–has placed the utmost importance on childhood, but Don Draper reminds us our adulthood is where importance lies. It is only once we have left the safety of institution–be it MHS or the most domestic regions of parenthood–that we are abandoned to the realization we our own masters. What Don Draper realizes at the end of season six is what thousands of Milts have realized before him: your choices are yours and yours alone.
I actually hate Hershey’s chocolate (though I’ll kill a man for a product from Hershey subsidiary Reese’s). But because I got what Dick Whitman never had in Milton Hershey School, I know how he felt, eating that sugary slab alone in the basement of a whorehouse. I’ve lived the tiny joys in the din of a soured childhood. I know what it is like to receive love from the cold hand of a product of a corporation. And as Don admonishes Hershey, high in a Madison Avenue tower yet watching his life melt in his shaken palms, “You shouldn’t have someone like me telling that boy what a Hershey bar is. He already knows.”