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An Orphan's Journey Through the School the Hersheys Built
The Milton Hershey School is the richest and wealthiest K-12 residential school in the world. Its $12 billion trust fund, financed by sales of the iconic Hershey candy, eclipse that of Cornell, Dartmouth, and Johns Hopkins combined. Even more stunning is that the school for orphans owns The Hershey Company and not the other way around.
As the twentieth-century drew to a close, the School’s Board of Managers creatively interpreted the Founder’s mission and tried to turn the refuge for extremely needy children into more of a middle-class boarding school. The alumni “Homeguys” challenged the Board and, after a decade of legal struggle and national publicity, won the battle to reclaim the soul of the school.
Johnny O’Brien, an orphan who lived at the school growing up, helped to lead the successful alumni protest. In a shocking turn of events, he was then selected to become Milton Hershey School’s eighth president and tasked with restoring the mission, morale, and character-building culture of “the Home.” He would need all his orphan resilience, Princeton and Johns Hopkins wisdom, and his good friends, to transform this unusual and remarkable school.
In a riveting and haunting account, O’Brien tells a universal story about the vulnerability of needy children, describes the madness that consumed his beloved brother, explores the cruelty of bullies—both young and old, exposes the corrupting influence of money, and shows how the Milton Hershey School continues its sacred mission of saving thousands of America’s neediest children.
See the website for the book at
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Size: 6 1/4 x 9 1/4
978-1-4422-3257-0 • Hardback • July 2014 •
978-1-4422-7584-3 • Paperback • August 2016 •
978-1-4422-3258-7 • eBook • July 2014 •
Biography & Autobiography / Historical
Business & Economics / Leadership
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is the former president of the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, PA. He spent his formative years from age 4 through 18 as a student at the School where he emerged as a leader of his Class of 1961 in sports, academics, and student government. He earned degrees in psychology and education at Princeton and Johns Hopkins Universities. Throughout his career, which includes serving as a Princeton University Trustee, he has specialized in education and issues related to leadership. He founded Renaissance Leadership, an executive leadership coaching firm, in 1978. He has been a keynote speaker, seminar leader and high performance coach for more than 50,000 managers and executives at leading American companies including Pfizer, AT&T, and American Express. He lives in Easton, Maryland and Vero Beach, Florida with his wife Gail.
1: Marching Home
3: The Founders
4: Barnyard Jungle
5: Frankie’s Story
6: Going over the Wall
7: MHS Loses its Way
8: Meltdown in Chocolatetown
9: The Restoration of Mr. Hershey’s Vision
10: The Politics of Righting the Ship
11: The Circle Closes
12: Lessons Learned
Here is a powerful and inspiring story—full of gripping drama, exceptional honesty, and real wisdom. And the best part is that it’s all true. Johnny O’Brien has given us a great gift—a book for anyone who cares about children, education, and the power of every person to change the world.
T. A. Barron, author of The Hero’s Trail and The Merlin Saga
Horatio Alger wrote this kind of book in the 19th century and enjoyed tremendous success. But while he wrote novels, the Johnny O'Brien story is true. Not only did Johnny overcome unbelievable obstacles and incredible family hardships to become successful both in life and business, but he also showed an extraordinary loyalty to the people and place that gave him the opportunity to succeed. Johnny is one of my heroes in life because of what he overcame and what he accomplished. Read this - and he'll be one of yours as well.
Charlie Gibson, former anchor, ABC's World News with Charles Gibson
It has been said that the journey to authentic leadership begins with understanding the story of your life. Johnny O’Brien reminds us, as leaders, that leadership emerges from our life story. And, while we cannot go back and start a new beginning, O’Brien encourages us to believe that anyone can start today and make a new ending. His story is one of gratitude, forgiveness, hope, and redemption – a rarely seen look inside a leader’s journey to authentic leadership.
Nick Nissley, Ed.D., dean of business at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College; formerly executive director of Leadership Development at The Banff Centre (Banff, Canada)
Semisweet tells the singular life story of Johnny O'Brien, an orphan who came to the Hershey School under tragic circumstances and, after a life of academic, athletic, and professional success, returned there to triumphantly restore the school's reputation as a savior of children in need. There are a lot of books that are labeled as inspirational, this one actually is.
Peter Carry, former Executive Editor, Sports Illustrated
John O'Brien is uniquely qualified to reflect upon and evaluate the Milton Hershey School experience, having enrolled as a student at age four and remaining a student until his graduation in 1961. In this book, he evaluates with an understanding and discerning mindset the strategic direction as well as the implementation of the School's mission as set forth in the Deed of Trust when the School was founded by Milton and Catherine Hershey on November 15, 1909.
Bill Fisher, former president of Milton Hershey School, 1985 - 1991
The book treats skillfully its many major themes all of which continue to have relevance today: the saga of survival and triumph by one brother versus the decline and fall of the other brother living out a fate that combines a certain Darwinian inevitability with social and medical ignorance and neglect; the status of orphans and other neglected children, deprived of the transformative power of love; the absence of childhood with its romantic aura in American life; bullying, be it institutional or individual with its potentially terrible effects on both the victim and the aggressor.
O’Brien recounts his upbringing in an orphanage backed by money and prestige in a touching story of growth, fear, perseverance, and return. Many don’t know about the Milton Hershey School, but these pages bring it to life and show how it has grown, changed, and evolved.
Bert Kerstetter, President, Everfast, Inc.
This book is more than Johnny O'Brien's fascinating story of his journey from being an orphan entering the Milton Hershey School to becoming a successful businessman and head of that school. Johnny outlines how he returned the school to its original values and mission by both stressing character and bringing the school into the twenty-first century, lessons that apply to schools everywhere. But courageously, O'Brien also takes to task the school's all-powerful board, challenging it to be more open and to better utilize the school's incredible resources. Always optimistic and practical, O'Brien believes that once the school's governance issues are resolved, 'The best is yet to come.'
Terry Eakin, founding chairman of DC Prep Charter Schools and chairman emeritus of EYA
• See the website for the book at
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