Obituaries

Ben Strohecker, 88, Harbor Sweets founder and AIDS activist

Mr. Strohecker welcomed a diverse workforce to his company, Harbor Sweets of Salem.
Globe Staff/file
Mr. Strohecker welcomed a diverse workforce to his company, Harbor Sweets of Salem.

If Ben Strohecker had only invented Sweet Sloops he would always be remembered by anyone who tasted candies produced by his business, Harbor Sweets of Salem.

His signature delicacy — a triangle of almond buttercrunch toffee, coated in white chocolate, and then dipped in dark chocolate and crushed pecans — came about by accident. While trying out candy recipes in his Marblehead home in the 1970s, he ran short of dark chocolate and slipped a buttercrunch triangle into melted white chocolate instead.

“My son said, ‘Looks like a sailboat, Dad.’ And my wife said, ‘A sweet sloop,’ ” Mr. Strohecker told The New York Times in 1988.

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That nautically named treat was but one part of his voyage, however. Inspired by his faith, driven by compassion, and grounded in his own human frailties, he became a leading fund-raiser for AIDS causes and a persistent voice for awareness. And he did so nearly 30 years ago when many people like him — straight, white, middle-aged businessmen — only spoke about AIDS while making homophobic jokes.

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Mr. Strohecker, who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for AIDS organizations and other nonprofits, died April 19 in the Hathorne Hill rehabilitation and care center in Danvers. He was 88 and had a stroke about two years ago.

“He was an extraordinary individual. He was a brilliant marketer. I think he was way ahead of his time in so many areas, marketing being one of them,” said Phyllis LeBlanc, president and CEO of Harbor Sweets, who began working for Mr. Strohecker as a part-time candy-dipper when she was in her late teens.

“He was firm in his principles of keeping everything unique and interesting and challenging,” she said, and that extended to the shape of the candy. He chose triangles because he thought rectangles were too ordinary.

“If there was anything Ben did not want to do it was what everyone else did,” LeBlanc added, laughing.

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It’s not much of a stretch to say that when he launched his company in the 1970s, Mr. Strohecker imposed a triangle approach of sorts on the business world’s boxed-in conformity.

“He was way ahead of his time in terms of how he treated his employees,” LeBlanc said. “We had flexible work hours.”

His personnel policies predated legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, too.

“We have hired people who have been disabled without really knowing how they were going to be productive,” Mr. Strohecker told the Times in 1988. “And there’s always been some miracle that’s happened so they’ve found ways to contribute. We count on that.”

Harbor Sweets hired mothers, the elderly, and those who didn’t speak English. They stood next to workers from the yacht club set who needed a few extra dollars and four-hour shifts that fit with the rest of their schedules.

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“Our only rule is this: If you’re not having fun, you’re fired,” Mr. Strohecker told The Penn Stater, the magazine of his college alma mater, in 1997.

Born in Reading, Pa., Benneville Strohecker was the son of Herman Strohecker, an entomologist with the state agriculture department, and the former Virginia Whitman, an artist.

“When I think of my dad, I think of a renaissance man,” said Mr. Strohecker’s daughter, Sara Clarkson of Westfield, N.J. “He came from an artistic mom, so he had that gene that seemed to show itself in everything he did. He was extremely creative and always allowed himself to tap into that creativity.”

Mr. Strohecker joined the Army at the end of World War II and served in Germany and France, repatriating prisoners of war. Returning home, he graduated from Penn State University in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in arts and sciences.

Working initially for Bachman snack foods in Reading, Mr. Strohecker suggested selling pretzels in tin containers with a Pennsylvania Dutch theme “long before it became popular,” he told the Globe in 1977. It was a hit. He became national sales manager before going to Johnson & Johnson pharmaceuticals in Chicago.

“With some reluctance,” he told the Globe, “I became the first Strohecker in three generations to leave Reading.”

From Johnson & Johnson he went to Keebler, where he became the cookie company’s director of marketing development and long-range planning. Then he moved to Marblehead and directed marketing for Schrafft’s candy in Charlestown.

“I learned at those companies that the stockholders always come first and the customers always come second,” he told The Penn Stater. “I couldn’t work with that philosophy.”

In the 1970s, he started Harbor Sweets, setting up shop in a Salem warehouse. He informally polled candy business colleagues and found that nearly everyone’s favorite treat was almond butterscotch dipped in chocolate, so he borrowed parts of various recipes to come up with Sweet Sloops.

“I started out to make the best piece of candy in the world,” he told the Globe in 1983.

He donated his first candy attempts to a fair at his Episcopal church.

“It was bread cast upon the water. I was surprised people actually paid for it,” he told the Globe in 1980, adding that “there’s no question what happened at Harbor Sweets could not have happened without God’s help. I could have been the greatest marketing genius ever and not done this. God has given us a lot of help to make it happen.”

He gave back by donating a percentage of his profits to charity. When the AIDS crisis emerged, he took a year sabbatical from work to raise money and awareness — beginning with his own.

“I grew up as a farm boy,” he told The Penn Stater. “I never knew anyone who was gay. I was raised homophobic and racist and sexist.”

“The single word that comes to mind right away when I think of Ben is ‘mensch.’ Here’s a person who has a great entrepreneurial spirit and he’s not only used that in his private life with his own business, but also as an AIDS activist,” Larry Kessler, founding director of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, told the Globe in 2003. “He would go to Rotary clubs and to Washington, and talk to everyone from small businesspeople who owned hamburger stores to Levi Strauss and everything in between and say, ‘You can do more, you need to do more, not only for your employees but for the community and the world.’ ”

Mr. Strohecker, whose first marriage ended in divorce, married Martha Dunn 30 years ago. In addition to his wife, of Peabody, and his daughter, Sara, he leaves two sons, Benneville Jr. of Arizona, and Samuel of Cranberry Township, Pa.; his sister, Tanie Strohecker White of Hudson, Ohio; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. July 1 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Beverly Farms.

As Mr. Strohecker stepped back from running Harbor Sweets, ceding leadership to LeBlanc, he began painting, exhibiting his work, and creating children’s books such as “The Day the Ocean Changed to Chocolate.” He also founded a group of retirees to pool their talents to help communities. That effort brought a positive aging role model award from North Shore Elder Services in 2014.

“I don’t have much more time left to change the world,” he had told The Penn Stater in 1997 as he began easing out of his company’s operations. “I have to hurry.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.