This week my dad Jim Bronner would have been 74. My dad was not officially at the helm of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps very long, but although his official time heading Dr. Bronner’s was short, the role he played was crucial to the survival of the company. His presidency of the company only lasted 4 years, connecting the 45+ years my grandfather ran it to the ongoing 14+ years of my brothers’ leadership. He also stepped in during two times of crisis in the 80’s and again in the early 90’s to guide the company back on to a sure financial footing.
The rest of what I share below I wrote for the dedication of a new branch of the San Diego Boys and Girls Club, the James A. Bronner Family Branch. I shared this with the children of the B&G Club, so that they would know about the man after whom their building was named. This is not so much a bio of his life, but rather insight into who he was as a man. I hope it also contributes to your understanding of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps and the people who made it what it is.
Many of my dad’s accomplishments are closely intertwined with the support and strength he drew from his wife, my mom, Trudy Bronner. Very little of what he did would have been possible without the partnership he had with my mom. In many ways, my dad was the visionary, my mom is the implementer. My dad had the ideas, my mom makes them happen.
The facts on paper about my dad will tell you that he was an enthusiastic volunteer for the Boys and Girls Club. He coached soccer through the Escondido (CA) branch, even though his own kids were grown. He served on the Board of Directors, where my mom still serves today. He made sizeable donations to the organization. He brought his ever-fun Snofoam (inspiration for the Magic Foam Experience) to many a children’s Christmas party. He was also a chemist, an inventor, a soap-maker, an adventurer and a story teller. He was creativity and intelligence bound together with hard work, loyalty and perseverance. And he was my dad. But this doesn’t even begin to tell you who he was.
My dad had the biggest heart you’d ever meet. He always stopped to help anyone in trouble. My brother Mike tells the story of one hot summer day, the two of them were driving home through the Mojave Desert. The temperatures outside were nauseatingly high. They came upon a stranded motorist by the roadside, and our dad stopped for half an hour to assist. Happy to be back underway again and feeling pretty smug about his good deed for the day, my brother was astounded when our dad pulled over about 45 minutes later to help yet another stranded motorist. “Why couldn’t they just leave this motorist to be someone else’s good deed?” he thought. My dad’s answer, “I just couldn’t live with myself if I simply drove on by.”
Jim Bronner emphasized the positive and saw the potential in everyone. As a soccer coach for over 20 years, he would often have the team that lost most regular season games. They’d end the season dead last. But in the playoffs, they would climb the ranks, defeating team after team, as my dad found the potential in each player and pulled out skills they didn’t know they had. Time after time, he saw his team in the championship game. And most importantly, every child had a good time.
Jim Bronner would find the perfect encouragement for every situation. I remember many a soccer half time, when my team would be down 4 goals to 0, and my dad would gather us around him, not to talk strategy, but to talk history. He’d tell us about John Paul Jones, American naval captain in the Revolutionary War, who was severely outmanned by the opposing English ship. After sustaining heavy losses, he heard the English captain call out, “Are you ready to surrender?” John Paul Jones answered back, “Sir, we have not yet begun to fight!” And the next thing you knew, we were all John Paul Joneses out there on the soccer field. Or maybe that was the day he told us about Winston Churchill, prime minister of Britain during World War II, who memorably said, “Never, never, never, never give up!” And suddenly we were not a downtrodden team. We were determined and energized and optimistic, and much of the time, the game turned out a whole lot better. We learned a lot of history, too.
Jim Bronner was not afraid to start at the bottom, but he was never content to stay there. My dad did not grow up with his parents, but in a variety of indifferent foster homes. However, he didn’t let any of that be an excuse for his behavior or his achievements as an adult. He entered the United States Navy as a Seaman Recruit, the lowest level of sailor. He left the Navy as a Master Chief Petty Officer, the highest rank an enlisted man could achieve. In his career as a chemist, he began working, in my mom’s words, as “chief bottle washer”. He rose to Vice President and Technical Director. Later he became president of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. He started coaching soccer as a spur of the moment parent volunteer, and he became Commissioner of the region. He didn’t shrink from hard work or difficult circumstances.
Jim Bronner also was not afraid of mistakes. One day when I was in high school, he took me with him to his lab. I don’t remember what we were making, but I recall I poured in too much of one ingredient. Instead of lambasting me for my mistake, he said, “Let’s see what happens. Sometimes a great invention starts from a mistake.” There were no mistakes with my dad, just unexpected outcomes. Where some people saw failure, my dad saw new beginnings.
Jim Bronner made things happen. Where some might say “That can’t be done,” Jim Bronner would say “Just watch.” At Dr. Bronner’s, he and my mom began an unprecedented profit sharing plan and no-deductible health care. Where some would have said, “You can’t give away that much money!”, he shared the profits with the people who helped earn them. He also guided the company into donating 1/3 of its profits to charitable causes.
This “anything is possible” philosophy is also responsible for the very building in which we’re standing. This facility exists today because one week before my dad passed away, he and my mom signed the documents donating a $1.4 million piece of land to the San Diego Boys and Girls Club. The Boys and Girls Club were able to sell that land and with the proceeds renovate this building to establish a permanent Valley Center Boys and Girls Club.
This building bears the name of Jim Bronner because my dad wanted the best for children. He wanted children to begin life with advantages he never had, so that they could stand on his shoulders and achieve greater things. So what would Jim Bronner say to you here today, to you who give purpose to this building? Three things: “Never, never, never, never give up!” “There are no mistakes!” and “This meeting’s gone on long enough! Let’s go play some soccer!”
Happy Birthday, Pop!