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.
Last year, every one of our fifteen workers got from $6,000 to $22,000 as a profit-sharing bonus. They all have optical and dental as well as medical coverage, and a pension plan. Four times a year, we have safety meetings, which can be boring, but afterward we take all of our employees and their spouses, sweethearts, and kids out for a big party. We'll have an $800 bill. But they looked on Dr. Bronner, my father, as a sort of father, too. We are all one family, and we try to carry on what he started.
Reporters can't believe 2 million bottles are packed by hand, but you saw it. Four to five people, not working fast, pack them with no machines. Corporate America wants us to believe that you have to have machinery and pollution if you want products; that we can't make money if we share profits with workers. We are proving them wrong and loving it. The business is still run out of a California bedroom that Dad converted into an office. The two secretaries can look out the window and see our cats and orange trees.
How do you decide which causes to help?
It's usually a call from someone who loves the soap. A woman I've never met named Adaku Nzeribe called five years ago. She'd just come from Nigeria and was depressed by the sight of Nigerian street women being forced into unwanted marriages, prostitution, and homelessness. She wanted to get some soap for them. We sent her soap and money for getting those women jobs and clothes. Churches and organizations often ask if they can buy it cheaper to ship it to Third World countries. We tell them it's no charge.
We've donated money to the Black Holocaust Museum, and two months ago, I met its founder, Dr. James Cameron. He reminded me of my father, 85 years old and going strong. Dr. Cameron said, "The world is our country, and we are all children of the same God." I showed him my father's label from 1950: "The whole world is our country, our fatherland, because all mankind are born its citizens. We are all brothers and sisters because one ever-loving, eternal Father is our only God." That's from Thomas Paine. My father added the part about brothers and sisters. He always changed things.
So what was your dad like?
My father was the most dedicated person I've ever come across, and that's what made him somewhat impossible to work for. We all loved him, but his drive and intensity made it hard to be with him continually.
What keeps you inspired to do this work?
I never tire of telling Dad's story, whether it's to you, the guy stuck next to me on a plane, or to 2 million listeners on National Public Radio. I think I was born to tell it.
I keep scrapbooks. 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: "My dear friend Dr. Bronner. [It always floors me how many people who had never met my father thought of him as a close friend.] My life was empty until one day, while washing the daily grime from my skin and anticipating my demise, I noticed the words on the wrapper of a bottle of soap. I read them, and instantly there was purpose to my existence. Your words of eternal wisdom returned faith to an old man's black heart. For this I cannot thank you enough." And he signed it, "My eternal gratitude."
Yes, but Dad was already writing long before his parents perished in the concentration camps. He was already saying that we're all children of the same God. I think it started because he was fed up with his father overemphasizing Jews as the chosen people. So he married my mother, a Catholic hotel maid. After that, he read the Bible as well as the Torah.
He was dedicated to getting other people to find God, but his intensity sometimes got him into trouble. Once, he was speaking to student groups and organizations on the University of Chicago campus, but he hadn't bothered to ask permission. He was brought to the president's office. Dad claimed freedom of speech and refused to leave, so the president called the police, who used a parking ticket as an excuse to haul Dad off and put him in a straitjacket.
|"My father was dedicated to getting other people to find God, but his intensity sometimes got him into trouble."|
Eventually, they put him into Elgin [Illinois] Insane Asylum, which he called a concentration camp. He escaped and spent his first few nights of freedom on the roof of a YMCA in L.A. With no identification and no money, he got a job fighting forest fires. In his head, he had the soap formulas that he'd learned from the masters in Germany. He never apologized for the fact that he didn't have a Ph.D.; his knowledge of soap was equivalent to one.
What was your father's early life like, before he became a visionary soap maker?
He seemed to have been born a visionary. He was a member of a wealthy Jewish soap-making family, yet he felt he had to show the world the Jews could work with their hands and were not the chosen people. He also couldn't understand the prejudice and hatred of the times. At four years old, he had a bucket of urine thrown on him by other boys, who called him a "goddamn kike," and he had to go and ask his parents what the word meant.
Your dad's goal was to unite all religions. Some people fear the coming together of all religions as a sign of the apocalypse.
A few times a month, I'm asked whether we're a New Age religion or a cult. We'll we're not, or if we are, we have no members. Our family is running a soap business based on Dad's teachings. All he did is what any religious person does: he reads the great works--the Torah, the Bible, Thomas Paine--and picked what he liked. His theology was a sort of cosmic soup.
Did you ever try to write your dad's life story?
I tried to get it on tape, but he'd tell only a little about his life and then go into the Moral ABC. I'd say, "That's already on the label." And he'd say, "What's more important--my life or uniting Spaceship Earth?"
Once, Dad and I were working outside. Dad like lying in the sun with his leopard-skin bathing suit on. (Actually, he liked lying there nude; we had to talk him into the suit.) We were working on the label for the millionth time, going over and over the words when the phone rang. He answered it and nodded his head silently for thirty seconds--a long time for him not to speak. Finally, he said, "I don't have time. Call me back when I've united Spaceship Earth!" And he slammed the phone down.
I said, "Who was it?"
My eyes bulged. "What did they want?" I asked.
"They wanted to write a feature, but I don't have time. Now, where were we? Oh, yes, Number Thirteen."
He was totally blind for his last 25 years and legally blind for 20 years before that. He called himself the happiest blind man in America, because he was helping the earth.