'I Was Born to Tell Dad's Story'
Dr. Bronner's son, Ralph, now 64, talks about soap trips, God's teachings, and living in the shadow of a visionary.
BY: Gail Grenier Sweet
Tell me what it was like being the son of Dr. Emanuel Bronner.
I was just out of college when I first went out to L.A. to help him with the business in 1957. I typed the labels. (No word processors back then.) I thought we were wasting our time. I told Dad, "Nobody's going to read this stuff." There were more than three thousand words, in type smaller than a phone book. It was stupidity. And when I made a mistake in those days, we didn't even have wite-out. We retyped it.
Finally, I went into teaching so I could become independent. In 1961, I brought my wife, Gisela, to California with me for the first time, and within half an hour, she was packing soap. Dad never wasted time on pleasantries.
During the 32 years you taught school, were you still as involved with the company?
Yes and no. My father, thankfully, slowed down over the years, but at his peak, I'd get four or five phone calls a week, some an hour long, about "Ralph, we're changing Number Six," or "Number Thirteen"--which is how he referred to statements on the label. With faxes back and forth, I was never completely away from the business. I'd go out there for about two weeks at a time, which was all I could stand.
|"Here's a letter from a man who says the soap makes him feel like someone put a York Peppermint Pattie in his underwear. Here's another from a man who thanks us for giving his life purpose."|
About ten years ago, I started taking "soap trips," traveling at random, meeting the people who are selling our soaps, and telling them our story. On one trip through rural Minnesota, a woman told me, "My husband would love to meet you. He's out plowing the north forty." So I drove into the fields to find him. Seeing the tractor, I got out and waved to him. From a distance, I said, "I'm Dr. Bronner's son." As he walked toward me, he recited from memory a quote on the label, the one about "God's perfect pilot." That choked me up: a farmer in a field in Minnesota, who didn't even know I was coming, had memorized part of the label.
For a typical soap trip, I might take 39 cases and about 400 copies of articles. When we leave, we usually don't know where we are going to stay that night. I sometimes go on the spur of the moment. I used to take a disabled friend along. One time, we were heading to Kansas City, and on the way we decided to go to Omaha. It makes no difference; I have no appointments.
So the purpose of your trips is...
To tell the story. Of course, people can't believe this. They all think I'm a salesman. They can't believe Dr. Bronner is my father and I'm the vice-president. I'll give you a good example. We were near Mount Shasta, and I walked into a health-food store and said, "I am Dr. Bronner's son." The owner said, "Why are you visiting me? I'm already selling your soap." But I told her our story anyway, and by the time I left, she had tears in her eyes and was hugging both Gisela and me. She'd had no idea that our profits were helping to dig wells in Ghana and to raise [a foster mother's] kids, or how we shared with our workers.