In telling our father’s story, it’s hard to know where to begin—with the inventor, the leader, the storyteller, or the humble servant. At heart, he was a passionate soapmaker who had the kind of mastery and instinct that could never be taught. I remember being at a trade show in the mid ‘90s when a retailer came to our booth with a new soap that everyone was raving about. The retailer asked, “Are you worried?” My dad responded by taking a drop of soap into his mouth, tasting it, and replying, “Nope. Too much alkali, it’s going to irritate people’s skin.” Sure enough, that soap failed within the year.
Underneath the soapmaker, though, was a man who believed in serving humbly, never putting oneself over another, and leading from within—heart first. Who he was, was completely tied to serving others—not out of a need to feel good and pat himself on the back—but because he was unwilling to turn a blind eye to injustice and suffering. He was completely lacking in affectation, incredibly grounded, and allergic to all BS.
My father Jim always fought for the underdog, and acted more immediately to address any wrongs done to them than any injustice he himself may have felt—and he suffered his share. As the child of a visionary—Emanuel Bronner, founder of Dr. Bronner’s—our father’s own needs often took a distant second place to those of “Spaceship Earth.” But he always channeled the negative into the positive. Because Jim had been raised by a rotating battery of foster parents, he made sure that he was going to be the best, most attentive dad to me and my siblings, and forge for us a wonderful home space that he never had. He rolled up his sleeves and dove into soccer coaching, scout and school volunteering, anything he could do to improve the lives around him. Even later in life, as the man who brought our company back from bankruptcy in the ‘90s, he remained the quiet hero in the shadow of our grandfather—though it was our father, through his sturdy yet unassuming leadership, who worked to actualize what our grandfather visualized, putting into practice the principles on which our company was founded: peace, unity, and shared prosperity—All-One!
It was our father who, during his tenure as president, introduced 15% profit-sharing and zero-deductible health care for all employees and their families. When instructed to sell an inherited $1.4 million parcel of land to pay down taxes, it was our father who, with his brother and wife, opted instead to donate the land to the Boys and Girls Club to create a campground for disadvantaged kids. And it was our father who started our annual holiday tradition of handing out a candy cane with a $100 bill attached, and bidding every recipient to spend it on something fun and report back.
We also have Jim Bronner to thank for Dr. Bronner’s Magic Foam Experience, and can think of no better embodiment of his inventive, loving, and joyful soul—creating magical snowy wonderlands for disadvantaged youth in our community, and at mud-runs, music festivals, pride parades, and other events—with the very SnoFoam he invented, first as an industry-standard fire-fighting foam, and later as snow for use on Hollywood sets and in our own childhood backyard.
Although our father passed 20 years ago today, he laid the groundwork for our company to successfully blossom into the company we are today, and his lessons of love and compassion live on in us: Stand up for the little guy. Speak truthfully. Take a step toward your fears. Learn from everyone. Let your responsibility for others ground you. Eat last.
Here is the eulogy that my brother David wrote soon after our father died, and which we shared with our customers at the time:
JIM BRONNER: A EULOGY FROM HIS SON TO OUR FRIENDS & CUSTOMERS
Jim Bronner was a wonderful, sincere man of integrity, warmth, and compassion. Despite a difficult childhood, he worked his way up to head chemist of an LA soap manufacturing company. Drawing on three generations of soap-making excellence in our family, and without any formal college training, he rose to become one of America’s master soap-makers. He oversaw and improved the manufacture of his father’s (Dr. Bronner’s) castile soaps, and developed Sal Suds for Dr. Bronner’s, an all-purpose ecological hard-surface cleaner which cleans and rinses with unmatched power. He invented a fire-fighting foam in widespread use around the world, as well as a modified version of this foam, SNOFOAM®, which is used in the movie industry to simulate snow. He formed his own consulting company 10 years ago, where his mechanical and engineering genius could flower to its fullest; he built a compressed air foam rig on a trailer, and loved to go out spreading joyous energy through the “snow” to inner city day camps, schools for the deaf, convalescent homes, etc.
When Dr. Bronner’s health began to fail along with the corporation 8 years ago, Jim stepped in and brought the company out of bankruptcy onto a sound financial basis. When Jim and his brother Ralph assumed formal control of Dr. Bronner’s All-One! Inc. 5 years ago, they continued his charitable and philanthropic ways, providing every employee of Dr. Bronner’s and their families with a comprehensive health plan which includes full optical and dental coverage and a profit-sharing plan which contributes the maximum 15% each year. Just last week they completed the donation of 1000 acres of “Rainforest” to the Escondido Boys and Girls Club, to which they had already provided several busses for transportation of children to the Club. Jim devoted personal time, money and energy to many worthwhile causes, and brought happiness and warmth to all who encountered the dynamism of his being.
After 11 months of courageous battle with cancer, fluid in his chest stopped his breathing 1 1/2 weeks before his last day, and he was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Within just a few days, he rallied out of the hospital in great pain and disability to escort his daughter Lisa down the aisle in her marriage to her new husband Michael on June 6. This was the goal he had devoted his energies to reaching, from the day we first found out the cancer diagnosis. Although wheelchair bound and forced to breathe oxygen due to lack of breath, he was able to toast Lisa and Michael, and dance with Lisa to “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler On the Roof. This was the most beautiful thing any of us had ever experienced, and we all were lost in tears of joy and bittersweet sadness, as we soaked in the depth of soul, joy and beauty of his last dance in this world. On the morning of his death, we were down at Scripps for his last radiation treatment to control pain in his hip, and to tell them that since we were bringing in hospice that day we would no longer be coming to the hospital. My dad thanked the wonderful nurse oncology coordinator with these words: “The treatment was 100% successful. I have accomplished all that I had wanted to.” He waited for hospice to come into the home and when he saw his family taken care of, he departed this world in his family’s embrace of tears and love. The funeral service on Tuesday was beautiful, and truly honored a spiritual and moral giant of a man, who with his wife Trudy enabled his children to flower and grow into young adults of responsibility, vision, and integrity, inspiring these values in us through his own example and life.
In Love, David Bronner