Richard Wortman was born into the Great Depression and grew up through the Second World War. As a young man, he became a member of the 101st Airborne Infantry in the Army during the Korean Conflict. Needless to say, Richard Wortman knew a thing or two about frugality and efficiency. “Waste not, want not” were words he often reminded boys of assigned to student home “Union” at the Milton Hershey School. Mr. Wortman (as we were expected to call him) taught us a lot – respect, character, accountability and manners.
When I met Richard Wortman, I was an adolescent with an entitled chip on my shoulder and little respect for authority or rules. I thought, like many boys, only narcissistically about myself. I also (foolishly…) thought I could get around Mr. Wortman and his pesky rules; however, what I didn’t fully recognize at the time was that Wortman had already dealt with hundreds of punks like me – I was nothing new to him or his wife, Margaret, who had been house parents at the Milton Hershey School for over two decades.
Although I only lived in Mr. Wortman’s “Union” house for a couple years before he and Marge retired to their home in Middletown, I learned many valuable life lessons from them: hard work, honesty, discipline. I recall that Mr. Wortman would wake us every morning for chores at 5 a.m. His shoes were already on, shined and sparkling, like his eyes, which even at that early hour were also alert and vigilant to our every move. Or, “non-moves” for that matter - during chores, Wortman patrolled Union house to ensure none of us were derelict of our duties (e.g., taking a nap instead of cleaning the shower stalls.)
Some might have called Mr. Wortman a bit of a “ball-buster” in that he was tough as nails and had no patience for nonsense or bullshit. Some may say that Mr. Wortman “gave us too much work and chores... Don’t you remember him making us do yard work on his new retirement home in Middletown?” I do recall working on yard work at Mr. Wortman’s home; however, I also recall him paying us for that work (modestly of course, but enough to ensure we recognized the value of an hour of our time and energy.) I also remember him driving us to the movies, buffet restaurants, the mall, etc.
Mr. Mortman also knew how to have fun and had a sense of humor (usually safe, but too often, embarrassingly about one’s heritage, e.g., Polish, Puerto Rican, etc.) Needless to say when Wortman wasn’t taking us on some sort of adventure, he would be sharing stories and jokes from his life at dinner. While listening to those stories around the table, I learned about respect and that our time spent around a table could be shared as a family (no matter whom you sat besides.) Of course, for many of us at the Milton Hershey School, this was our family.
I remember the moment my opinion of Mr. Wortman changed from being a “ball-buster” to a leader: it was when I saw this strong and seemingly unbreakable man break – Mr. Wortman cried. When I saw him cry it was because “his boys” had failed him. (I will not go into the details of the situation itself, but it entailed some boys in our house being expelled for bullying.) When I saw Mr. Wortman cry, I realized that just below the tough shell was a man with much experience who truly cared about our future. He wanted us all to be great men and spent his life ensuring that this “next generation” would be as strong as his “the greatest generation.” Yes, he held us boys up to some high expectations, but they were fair and just ones that our world would do well to uphold.
Mr. Wortman wasn’t perfect (and of course who is?...) but he was a disciplined leader who loved his family (whom my condolences are with) and hundreds of boys whom he influenced and guided throughout his life. Richard Wortman’s memory and example will live on through the lessons he taught us all.
MHS, Union ‘97