Editing History: Hormel founder’s autobiography launched

Published 7:01 am Sunday, September 3, 2017

Over 70 years after he died, the voice of George A. Hormel is being heard loud and clear, thanks to his grandsons and editor Sandra Weinrib Stanfield.

Hormel’s autobiography, “The Open Road,” was officially launched Aug. 28, amid a group of interested citizens who toasted the occasion with champagne and a talk by Stanfield at the Historic Hormel Home.

In addition to the formal release, it was announced that proceeds from the sale of the book will go to the operation of the HHH.

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“And we are extremely grateful,” said Holly Johnson, executive director.

Stanfield clearly enjoyed the challenge of rebuilding the autobiography that was uncovered by family members.

“The Open Road: An Autobiography of George A. Hormel.”

Grandsons Thomas and James Hormel enlisted Stanfield to edit the manuscript that was thought to be written by their grandfather sometime in the 1930s. The elder Hormel died in 1946.

The major challenge, said Stanfield, was working with another bound volume that was found, entitled, “Three Men and a Business,” that had portions of the first manuscript included, but with some unsatisfying changes.

While the majority of both books were the same, there were some slight differences – a different word or phrase used – but in other cases, Stanfield said, “whole chunks of ‘The Open Road’ were taken out – and they were interesting chunks.”

Stanfield began to recognize the “very warm and intimate” voice of Hormel, and someone else – an unidentified someone who they believe George’ son, Jay C. Hormel, hired to edit and prepare the volume for publication. It was clear, however, that the other voice “was limpy … and lacked the warmth” of Hormel, she said. Whoever it was, she added, “he butchered it.” There was also a too-abrupt end to the memoir, for reasons still not totally understood. The ending was kept, but an epilogue added to give it balance.

The process was challenging but, “we made the tough editorial decision about what to keep and what to toss.”

What was left, however, is gold, she said.

The story tells of Hormel’s parents and his early years, and the influences that shaped a man whose vision and care of his employees was astonishing.

Hormel’s father, a “wise, supportive and loving man,” helped mold George’s philosophy that an employer’s duty was to help develop an employee’s special talents, and to make sure they were working in a job that was suited to them. His mother taught him to work hard and not take the easy way to a goal.

Hormel Historic Home Executive Director Holly Johnson, right, with Sandra Weinrib Stanfield, editor of “The Open Road,” George A. Hormel’s autobiography. All proceeds from the sale of the book will be given to the operation of the Hormel Historic Home. Deb Nicklay/deb.nicklay@austindailyherald.com

“John Hormel was really good with his children; he and George had profound discussions, sometimes about about social issues. He had a very wise and humanistic viewpoint about life,” she said.

George grew to be “full of ambition and fire” and after working for his uncle, and then as a traveling salesman, he had a chance to go into business with another businessman in Austin. They started a sausage-making business that grew to be Hormel Foods.

“He was a visionary; full of innovations,” she said. But as important as anything were his employees.

That vision influenced his son, Jay C. She told the story of how the Depression hit the company, forcing Jay C. to lay off some workers. One worker lashed back at Jay C., asking why the Hormel’s weren’t taking care of their people during such dire times. That prompted Jay C. to tell his father “that he wasn’t going to lay off any more workers” and would have to find other ways to keep people at the plant. George wrote that he realized Jay C. “was absolutely right, that it was the responsibility of business” to find ways to help its people. So, Hormel began a line of soups that turned out to be a success and kept workers on the payroll.

She said George believed that “‘Our first obligation is to workers, to management second, and shareholders, third.’”

She told the story of how Jay also created the annual wage, so that workers, who suffered tight budgets during the summer when business was light, could pay their mortgages. Pay was averaged out over the year so workers took home the same amount each month and could survive the lean times.

Then there was the story of a failing Austin bank. The bank was failing, as many were during the Depression. Jay called his father, who was by then retired and living in California, to ask if George would agree to spend $250,000 to save the bank.

At first George thought his son “was crazy,” she said. But then George recalled in his book that he had read in a morning paper about a rich son whose indiscretions cost his father a bankroll. He realized Jay was asking for money for the community, and not for himself — and that was the right reason to spend the money.

When his financial officer Cy Thomson was found to have embezzled over a million dollars from the company, George had to refinance a loan and was grateful when his bank granted him an extension to pay it.

“The bank did it, based on his passion; they knew he meant it and would work to pay it,” she said.

Austin, she said, was really another character in his book, and it was clear that he loved the community.

Employees today are the recipients of his philosophies, she said, adding she had visited the plant this week and knew that the positive comments she heard started with a company mindset he established.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Stanfield said. “That value system has been passed down. The experience was a beautiful thing – and I have a new hero.”

(“The Open Road” is on sale at The Hormel Historic Home, and Sweet Reads Books and Candy, Austin)