Back in 1978 I was not in a good place in my teenage years. I had gotten into trouble, I was not doing well in school, in fact I hated just about everything about my existence. Family was split up, one parent was out of the picture, the other parent really wasn’t really there for a teenage son, I am not sure they knew how to handle me. It was the start of a different generation. The things that they were expecting, excellence in school and obedience, were just not things in my thought process.
I was a loner in the local high school. I was not into sports, my favorite sport had been taken away from me a few years prior due to lack of time and money. I missed swimming. The second favorite sport, sailing, also was taken away, again citing money. My boat had been sold. It seemed like everything I loved was taken away.
So, in October of 1978 my mom heard about the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, PA and we went for an in person interview. It was a very uncomfortable eight hour drive down to Hershey, and even a stranger eight hour drive back to Schenectady, NY. See, something changed while I was having a campus tour, talking with some advisors, and looking around. I had something I was looking forward to. As the weeks went by and we were waiting for a decision, and even after we had an enrollment date, I kept looking at the brochure that I came home with and knew that something would change.
Then, in the middle of my Freshman year the date finally came. I enrolled in Milton Hershey School and was assigned to the student home Green Acres as an incoming student. I arrived on campus in the early morning, everyone else was at school. I went through all the processing, the health checks, and getting clothing and other orientation activities. I was then taken to Senior Hall where I met my housemates and housefather for the first time. One of the things I was most hoping for was a fresh start, not getting bullied or picked on was in my dreams.
Well, that dream did not last long. I was basically attacked from the first evening. I almost ran away, but was not sure where I would go. Hershey is in the middle of farm country and it was Winter. I was getting out of the shower after chores and was tripped and pushed into a corner by and overgrown idiot and hit. I managed to keep from crying. I chose not to say anything to my houseparents but they heard about it anyways, and when questioned I chose not to give the names of those involved. I was basically told to “suck it up and deal” and that “they are teaching who’s in charge” (wait, I thought that was the houseparents) and “some hazing is expected.” This went on all week, and I was really not sure what to do because I knew even back then that this was unsustainable.
At Milton Hershey School the senior division back then had student homes that were in pairs around the countryside. Each two student homes were responsible for a dairy farm, that’s right, with cows, calfs, milking, manure cleanup, and all. Half the students from each student home would have barn chores, and half would have house chores. This happened morning and evening. The farm portion was managed by a dairyman who usually lived in the older of the student homes and him and his wife served as the substitute houseparents.
Every other weekend the houseparents would have a weekend off and the dairyman would take over, and on the opposite weekend the houseparent would run the dairy to give time off. Well, I had heard from others in my classes that the weekends of the substitute houseparents were a grand old party where the student home ran wild and basically there was a lack of adult supervision. Given the bullying I was enduring I was not looking forward to that. So, Friday afternoon our dairyman, Mr. Jones, picked us up from school. I was a scared 13 1/2 year old gangly teenager who was not looking forward to the weekend,
The weekend was everything I had not expected. First, Mr. Jones spent some time with me while in the barn. He taught me how to milk the cows, yes, we had milking machines, and I had some earlier in the week tutoring but he talked to me. I ended up mentioning the problems that I was having and nothing else was said about it. But, by the end of the weekend I absolutely fell in love with the farm. I started to notice the animals, how they responded to different people. I saw the care Mr. Jones showed to the cows and the calves and saw how they responded to him. I saw how the cows did not respond to the touch and the actions of the primary bully. And, I was not all that upset when I saw him getting kicked once or twice (I think I may have given that cow and extra scoop of grain).
This was the first time in a long time that I actually felt someone cared. Here I was a confused 13 1/2 year old that had been basically dumped in a boarding school in the middle of farm country, and someone gave a damn. And actually talked to me like I was a human being with the mentality to make decisions and had feelings.
This pattern continue for almost two months, all the way through March. I loved the farm. I loved the animals. And I enjoyed every minute spent with the Jones. Mrs. Jones was something special as well. She did not take crap from anyone. And, the bullying I was expecting was less on the weekends that they were on duty than the weekends the houseparents were on. I also slowly was allowed more responsibility in the dairy. I started getting up a bit early and setting up for milking, I got down to the barn a little early in the afternoons. Mr. Jones started to show me the record keeping he was doing on each cow, milk production, heat cycles, etc. On weekends I would spend as much time as possible in the dairy. Eventually Mr. Jones had a quiet unofficial conversation with me.
He had noticed that the bullying wasn’t getting any better. In fact it was become a bigger problem and the houseparents were not doing anything about it. He made the suggestion that there was another student home with a stricter set of houseparents that did not put up with the bullying. He suggested that I may want to request a transfer to Ridgeway. It was sort of my choice at the time. I really debated.
The Jone’s continued to play a very important role in my life after the transfer was arranged three days later. I still think Mr. Jones had something to do with making it all come together. Mr. and Mrs. Gallo, my second houseparents were everything I had been told about. I appreciated the change, the rules, and the adherence to a routine. While the following 3 years at Ridgeway were where I really grew up, I look back and thank the heavens for bringing Mr and Mrs Jones into my life during that first month.
Mr. Gallo, while he may have not understood it, supported my love for the dairy and made sure I had full access. I still had to do my house chore rotations, but for some reason I always had more barn time. He also supported my decision to study agriculture as my high school tract, along with college prep including some advance placement classes. Mr. Gallo allowed me to start taking on more responsibilities on the farm, including training and permission to drive tractors and farm equipment on the local roads, totally unheard of before. Other students noticed. Mr. Gallo and Mr. Jones also worked with Mr. Hitz, my agricultural instructor, to set up a training program that gave me the hands on skills to operate a dairy. This included welding, engine repair, and other skills that I have used over the years, not in farming, but in life. I road with the vet, I leaned about some of the medications, I learned about fertilizers, I learned about such a wide variety of topics.
When I had made the decision not to return to Schenectady for my vacations and to stay on campus most mornings and evenings would have me walking the mile and a half from Ridgeway to Green Acres to help Mr. Jones with the milking and farm chores as most of the students from those student homes had gone home. Looking back, he was a mentor to me and made more of an impact than most other adults. On the other hand Mr. Gallo, my housefather at Ridgeway, was a constant for me. He pushed me very hard to expand my limits and boundaries.
I had a scrapbook with me where I had all of my medals, ribbons, and cut out newspaper articles of my swimming in the age group leagues under the now defunct AAU. Mr. Gallo apperently found the scrap book and one afternoon in November 1979 I was told that I would be staying after school rather than returning to the student home. I had no idea why. I reported to my AP Biology teacher who tossed me a towel and a Speedo. He said, “want to see you on the pool deck in 15 minutes.” I didn’t even know there was a pool, problem one, and I was not sure I was ready for a team sport, problem two, and I was missing my best part of the day, the evening milking, problem three. Problem one was solved first. Problem two was resolved pretty quick as well by a team captain who made sure the new guy (me) was OK, and problem three, well that was a constant battle, but it was only 4 months of the year (and Mr. Gallo made it clear I would be pushing a lawn mower around a pasture every afternoon until I changed me mind).
I ended up excelling in just about everything. Following Hershey life was not easy, but the adults at Hershey had instilled some values in me that have continued to serve me well, and have allowed me to make a tremendous difference in other people’s lives. A fact I did not realize until last month when I went home to Hershey and was standing in the middle of the new campus commons and looked down at the pillars of the community.
Even though I did not know it at the time these fine people taught me what is on each of the pillars.
Adults can make a difference. I will always thank God that Mr. and Mrs. Jones were brought into my life. I thank the Mr. Gallo for his care. I thank Mrs. Gallo for her listening occasionally. There are so many others during those for years, I wish I could remember their names. But, Mr. Jones, I never said “Thank you!” and it is long overdue.