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Monday, October 24, 2016

Joan Baez - THE VOICE

 Image result for joan baez 75th birthday tour Milwaukee setlist

More than 30 years ago, my husband, Mike, and I saw Joan Baez in concert. So last spring, when I spotted an advertisement for her 75th birthday celebration tour, I jumped to buy tickets….

…. because I wanted to experience the comfort and joy of hearing her voice that spools out like silken thread….

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Next to Godliness - Interview with Ralph Bronner

I still get correspondence as a result of my year 2000 interview with Ralph Bronner, the son of the founder of Dr. Bronner's soaps. The interview appeared in the January 2001 issue of The Sun magazine. Recently Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania asked my permission to reprint the piece in their anthology for incoming freshmen. (I said sure.) When the interview first came out, I got calls from New York and Seattle publishers asking me to write a book...about...soap?... cleanliness?...they weren't sure. Neither Ralph Bronner nor I was interested in writing a book about soap or cleanliness.
Ralph died in 2015 at the age of 78, but his personality was so big that I think of him as very much alive. The soap company continues, along with its amazing fairness to employees and charitable giving.
The article is readable, but choppy - it is taken from a pdf of the article that I took from The Sun website. The piece begins with a short introduction by me, then continues with a long, verbatim interview. The typeface of the introduction is small but the interview itself has a much larger font. (I was unable to make the introduction font larger.)
Ralph Bronner was such a fast speaker that to get his words down accurately, I had to use a tape recorder - something I never did in decades of freelance journalism. I'm sure Dr. Bronner's Soap company does much more than $7 million worth of business now, almost sixteen years later, and I'm sure there have been other changes. I know that the basic message of the interview - corporate social responsibility - remains true for the company today.
(You'll notice the name "Sweet" with the questions. I published the piece using my married name, Gail Grenier Sweet.)
Ralph Bronner

Corporations come and go. Some fail to grow fast enough and die. Others spread like giant blobs in bad science-fiction movies. But the company that makes Dr. Bronner's Soap is different. Certainly, the $7 million business could expand. Corporations in Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Japan have offered to import the all-natural, inexpensive soap known for its thick lather. Big chain stores have asked to sell it, using their private labels. But the answer is always no. The family behind Dr. Bronner's wants to stay small and honor the message on its label, which includes words from many of the world's great religions and philosophers. Staying small and honoring the message means remaining family owned and family run. It means making and packaging a pure castile soap in factories where no harm is done to the environment. It means keeping the same employees for twenty years or longer with out-of-the-ordinary pay, benefits, and profit sharing. The company’s founder, Dr. Emanuel Bronner, also believed in sharing profits with what he called “Spaceship Earth,” borrowing Buckminster Fuller’s term. The company once donated a thousand-acre rain forest worth more than $1 million to the Boys and Girls Clubs. Over the years, it has funded an orphanage in China, a chemistry lab in a Mexican school, freshwater wells in Ghana, homes for special children, college scholarships in foreign affairs, and homeless shelters.

Retaining family control of the company also guarantees continued use of a label that might look out of place on chain store shelves. That famous label, the hallmark of a soap favored by back-to-the-land pioneers and fashion models alike, contains the “Moral ABC” of Dr. Emanuel Bronner. While you lather, you can read thousands of tiny words, scattered with exclamation points and run-on sentences: “When half-truth is gone & we are dust, the full-truth we print, protect & teach alone lives on! Full-truth is God, it must! Help teach the whole Human race, the Moral ABC of All-One-God-Faith.”

Twenty years ago, I noticed a strange listing in the white pages for Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, where I live, two thousand miles from the California home of Dr. Bronner’s Soap. Instead of a family name, the listing read, “All-One-God-Faith,” followed by a street address (my street) and a phone number. I learned the address was that of Ralph Bronner, son of Dr. Emanuel Bronner, soap inventor, and I heard tales about Ralph loading boxes of soap into his white van (marked “All-One-God-Faith”) and driving thousands of miles to give the goods away wherever a flood or other calamity created a need.

Last summer, I finally met Ralph Bronner, the man behind the mysterious phone-book listing. He told me about the company’s soap-bottling factory in Escondido, California, and he pushed some soap into my hand. Ralph and a photocopy machine are the entire publicity department. The company spends its money on expensive peppermint and hemp oils rather than on marketing. Ralph told me that, in his three hundred thousand miles of traveling, he hasn’t found a health-food store in America that doesn’t carry his family’s product. Yet they use no salespeople and no advertising — just word of mouth and more than fifty articles in such publications as Parenting, Backpacker, Vogue, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Milwaukee Journal, and others.

Shortly after I met Ralph, I traveled to California to visit my brother and his family, who live only a mile away from the soap factory, and got to see the operation firsthand. I missed my chance to meet Dr. Bronner himself, however; he had died in 1997 at the age of eighty-nine.

The low-tech Bronner factory in Escondido was a world apart from the smelly factories I saw when I was growing up in Milwaukee. Surrounded by eucalyptus trees, the building emits no noise. There’s no smoke and no odor except for the occasional whiff of peppermint, almond, eucalyptus, lemon, aloe vera, rose, or lavender. The day’s work orders are scribbled on a chalkboard. Liquid soap is stored in elevated vats and gravity-fed into tubes handled by four women who fill bottles in a room below. With fifteen employees, the company produces 1.5 million bottles a year, as well as bar soap, all packed by hand, with no machinery.

David Bronner, Ralph’s nephew and the company president, showed me around and told me about his grandfather. Dr. Emanuel Bronner was an eccentric who railed loudly and publicly against such “evils” as fluoridated water, communism, false religions, and poor health practices. Though he lost both parents in the Holocaust, he was a believer in the unity of the human family. Some saw his preaching about “uniting Spaceship Earth” as ranting, and he was once committed to an insane asylum in Elgin, Illinois. He escaped after three tries and fled to California, “where he fit right in,” the family likes to joke.

When I returned to Menomonee Falls, I had questions for Ralph Bronner, the company vice-president. Ralph is sixty-four years old, retired from thirty-two years of teaching junior high school in Milwaukee’s inner city. He now spends his days pursuing his love of folk music, practicing philanthropy, and promoting his father’s philosophy and soap. He runs a coffee house and sings for day-care centers and children’s groups. “Music, soap, and my life are so intertwined that they could never be separated,” he says.

Talking with Ralph gave me a taste of what it might have been like to meet the eccentric Dr. Bronner himself. What other company vice-president would take six cases of soap and a guitar on the train to Mardi Gras and lead the passengers in singing Steve Goodman’s famous song “City of New Orleans”?

The interview began as we walked into Ralph’s cluttered office.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Compassion for one who took two lives

Sometimes I get a Facebook friend request from someone I don’t recognize, so I don’t hit “accept.” That happened to me last week when I got a request from Melissa Bochert Oehme.

Hmm, I thought, the “Bochert” sounds familiar… I used to know Cliff and Jean Bochert… but Melissa? I don’t know her.

And so I didn’t accept her request.

But she persisted.

She sent me this message:

“Hi Gail, I just posted an article about my father and step-mother (Cliff and Jean Bochert). I want to thank you for the ‘Goodbye Cliff and Jean’ article you wrote. I have cherished it for the last 19 years because of what you wrote. It is hard to tell people what happened and then try to defend my dad. That is why that article has meant so much to me all these years. I have never met you, but you are a very important person in my life. You have no idea how the words you wrote helped me through this time in my life. I can’t thank you enough for your kind words and bringing light that he wasn’t himself. Thank you so very much!”

Here is the article Melissa referred to, dated November 17, 1997:

Here is a photo of Melissa from her Facebook page.

 Melissa Bochert Oehme's photo.

Yes, we are now FB friends, and she gave me permission to share this story. Maybe it will help someone else to survive wagging tongues.

I didn’t judge Cliff because I had insight into his story. If I had lacked that insight, I probably would have judged him harshly.

The older I get, the more people I know. The more people I know, the more I see the toll of their choices, the toll of their afflictions, the toll of their addictions. Every choice, every affliction, every addiction, has a price. When I see this toll, I am more likely to feel compassion for others. I am less likely to judge.

Pope Francis declared this the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and he wrote a prayer in honor of this effort. Here is my favorite part of the prayer:

“You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness in order that they may feel compassion for those in ignorance and error.”

Ignorance and error! It is easier to show mercy to those who suffer some obvious mental illness, like Cliff Bochert, than to show mercy to those who are just plain ignorant…or those who just plain make mistakes! (Don’t we all?)

The older I get, the more I realize I have no right to judge others. This is something I will have to work on until the day I die. I knew Cliff, so I did not judge him. I pray to God to help me not judge others, especially those who act in ignorance and error.

Gail Grenier is the author of Dessert First, Don't Worry Baby, Dog Woman, and Calling All Horses, all available from Links are posted to the right.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

A found friend...and St. Teresa of Calcutta

It was the year 2000, the year I would turn fifty, and I was spoilin' for some grandchildren. I had a couple of married sons, but no babies were on the horizon. Children were up to them, their wives, and God. There was nothing for me to do but wait...and wait.... 

However, there was one way for me to get my "little kid fix." I could go back to teaching.

So I did. I started as a teacher's aide and wound up teaching art and music at a school five minutes from my home, Aquinas Academy in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

The school principal was a woman named Peggy Duemling. She was in her late 30s, a bright-eyed, lively sort, and I liked her right away; I think everyone did. During the several years I taught at Aquinas, I realized that she was one of the few people I've met who embody both wisdom and innocence in equal measure. She fully understood the ways of the world and the ways of human nature, but she retained her purity of spirit and never became jaded.