Semisweet is a memoir of a portion of a most improbable journey. It was written by John A. O’Brien, one of my teammates on Princeton University’s most recent undefeated football team, v. 1964. In October of this year over a weekend on campus, nearly all of the team celebrated the 50th anniversary of that season; friendships were renewed and refreshed including mine with “Johnny.” It was at that reunion that another teammate volunteered to me that Semisweet was “a really good book” and I certainly agree.
Although I had always counted Johnny as a friend, he was one of dozens on that team. So until reading the book, I wasn’t aware of his challenging and most unusual pre-Princeton life or his subsequent total engagement with the residential institution that was his home for 15 of his first 18 years.
In 1947, when he was 3 years old, John A. O’Brien was delivered to The Milton Hershey School along with his mentally challenged 5 year old brother, allegedly because their parents had just been killed in an auto accident.
Wealthy then, the MHS has become the richest K-12 school in the world with an endowment of $12 billion, largely from its ownership in and control of The Hershey Company (think “chocolate”) and related entities. Today MHS’s endowment exceeds, for example, Stanford’s and those of all but a few other universities.
MHS was created in 1909 by Milton Hershey, founder of The Hershey Company, as a school for the poor. After Mr. Hershey’s death MHS’s governance became inbred and late last century led it to stray from the founder’s mission. As the MHS began to change from being a refuge for extremely needy children to more of a middle class prep school, its community of graduates became concerned. A decade of discussion, lawyers’ bills, and national publicity ensued, with Johnny as one of the alumni group’s principal actors.
In a turn that would challenge the believability of any story, Johnny was selected to be MHS’s 8th president in 2003, tasked with restoring the mission, morale, and character-enhancing culture of the school. In addition to being an accomplished grad of MHS and a leader in its alumni community, Johnny’s credentials included a career in which he trained thousands of employees in scores of corporations in leadership and team building. We can only guess that, when he returned as President to “Johnny Comes Marching Home” playing in the school auditorium, some of the Board of Managers’ fingers must have been crossed.
So this book is a first hand look at growing up as an orphan, with a less fortunate brother, in a truly unique institution. Johnny’s life from Princeton onward is lightly covered but sufficiently enough to establish his credentials to lead the school back to the founder’s path.
The discussions of the Board of Managers and governance issues will be familiar in concept to many who have served on a board. But here the details are affected by the very large dollars involved and the unusual, flip-flopping behavior by the State of Pennsylvania,
The writing is always authentic and in many places quotable.
It is midway through the book, just as Johnny is to graduate from Milton Hershey School in 1961, that he learns the “auto accident” story was a ruse put upon the O’Brien brothers by the school and caring relatives. Using a handgun, his father had killed his mother. This led to a conviction for first-degree murder and a sentence of state prison for life. Relatives weren’t in a position to take the 2 boys in so they searched for and found an acceptable environment for the boys in the form of the MHS.
A few years after graduating with his Princeton ’65 class, when reviewing the documents relating to his father’s actions and conviction, Johnny became concerned. Thus, another strand surfaces in Johnny’s life, his effort to have his father’s extensive jail sentence terminated because of poor lawyering in 1947. Although Johnny’s efforts led to his father being freed, they never enjoyed a warm & cuddly relationship.
His brother, having spent his entire adult life in mental institutions, died in 1997. With their widely divergent life paths plain to see, Johnny’s concern for his bro and comments on mental health care offer another layer to this book.
The last chapter of Semisweet is titled “Lessons Learned.” Very, very few have had a life with such extreme twists, turns, complex relationships, and successes so the Lessons cited are both practical and highly credible.
In summary: Highly recommended.
For further reading on Johnny O., see the February, 2004, Princeton Alumni Weekly article titled “Going Home.”