08/20/2014 08:05 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

Love Letters: Hershey, PA

Don Papson worked for The Hershey Company for more than 25 years. Recently retired, he is currently the executive director of The M.S. Hershey Foundation, a non-profit organization created by Milton Hershey in 1935 for educational and cultural enrichment. An avid coach and athlete, his favorite activities are swimming, running and frequent sprints to the office candy jar.

Dear Hershey,
Some folks write love letters to their hometown as if the place were a person. But I don't need to pretend. In profound ways, you, Hershey, of all cities, really are a person.
You're the infectious charm of a chocolatier rendered in brick and mortar. The vision and spirit and twinkling eye of an extraordinary candy maker made material. The pluck and vitality of a company town that matured into a close-knit community. Hershey the man, and Hershey the city, are impossible to disentangle. And that gives you a distinct and irresistible personality.
My father, Christos Michael Papadopoulos, moved here 80 years ago, a Greek immigrant who had met Milton Hershey in a New York City hotel. Dad spoke no English, but when he came to visit the little town in Pennsylvania, following up on Mr. Hershey's invitation to work at the brand new Hotel Hershey, he immediately recognized his hometown.
Not that your tidy streets and shops, or the dairy farms and the rolling greenery of Dauphin County, looked much like dad's native village in Cyprus. He never mistook the remarkable aroma of warm chocolate that often wafts through your avenues for the pungent scent of olives and rosemary he grew up with. But he, like many others drawn to settle in the newly created town, did recognize a familiar feeling--a warmth, a sense of community, a welcoming openness.
That openness has been part of your DNA from the beginning. Milton Hershey envisioned a place that welcomed people from around the world, both residents and visitors. You've always been a small town with global connections. Some cities become tourist destinations; you were born as a tourist destination, a living (and livable) confection that would be as much a treat as a Hershey's chocolate kiss. Mr. Hershey cast a global eye when he planned you in the early 1900s, naming your streets Caracas, Granada, Trinidad, Areba, Java--exotic places where cocoa beans were grown. He drew inspiration from the utopian, model communities of industrial Britain and France, and borrowed enthusiastically from the graceful architecture of Venice for the Hershey Theatre and other landmarks. From the very start, Hershey, you have melded small town American values with a grand, worldly perspective.
I also cherish the way you combine a warm heart with an open hand. That too grows from the spirit of your founder. Mr. Hershey famously gave away his entire chocolate company holdings in 1918, decades before he died, to found the Hershey Industrial School for orphaned boys. That school, spanning thousands of acres, thrives today as the Milton Hershey School, taking in disadvantaged boys and girls from across the region, giving them a home, a top-notch education, a sense of community, and an enduring commitment to service. That deep-rooted philanthropic and child-loving mission continues to shape your character. Who could not love a town that gives the world chocolate and gives kids a chance?
But your century-long commitment to children isn't the only aspect of your nurturing character. You were conceived as a model industrial community, and throughout your adolescence your founder supported an extraordinary range of amenities unheard of in other cities your size, let alone other factory towns. An amusement park, a museum, a public rose garden, a world-class arena--all help to define you. All make you greater than the sum of your parts: much more than just a collection of streets and structures. The chocolate factory at your heart is not simply the kernel from which you sprang, nor the primary business that sustains you. It's the sweet soul that molded your outlook from your earliest years.
Of course, it's not just your institutions or your Italianate buildings or your town square at the enticingly named intersection of Chocolate and Cocoa Avenues that matter. It's also what's not there--the miles of landscape that is not dotted with buildings. It's the hundreds of acres of undeveloped farmland and the gentle fields I pass every morning on my five-mile trek to work, still maintained in their agrarian state by various Hershey interests. All of us are molded by our surroundings, and that's equally true for you. After all, you were built in this part of Central Pennsylvania in large measure because of the location: the easy access to railroads to ship the factory's confections far and wide, and equally important, the nearby dairy farms that put the milk in your milk chocolate. Much of that land remains undeveloped today, supporting your iconic businesses or preserved for future generations of Milton Hershey School students. You are "green" in outlook and green in fact.
But to be honest, Hershey, one of the things I love most about you is the effect you have on people when I say where I'm from. Their eyes widen with a glint of wonder when I tell them what it's like to step out of the office at dusk under the soft glow of chocolate kiss streetlights. I love being able to put a smile on someone's face just by naming my hometown. And maybe also I love the hint of envy I see in their faces, or hearing, "Wait. You mean that's really a place?"
Most people think that your motto --"The Sweetest Place on Earth"--refers to the mountains of chocolate you have given us over the past century. But I know you better, Hershey. The slogan also is a description of your singular ability to blend small town charm with a global name profile, tourist destinations alongside beloved family businesses, a vast and savvy global enterprise amid merry street names and quirky candy-shaped streetlamps. Everything that makes you simultaneously welcoming and prosperous and playful and one of a kind.