Longtime Tootsie Roll chief dies at 95

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Melvin and Ellen Gordon of Chicago-based Tootsie Roll are shown at the 2003 Candy Expo at McCormick Place. | Sun-Times Library

Melvin Gordon, who chaired Chicago’s Tootsie Roll Industries since the Kennedy administration, died Tuesday after a brief illness.

He was 95.

The Board of Directors appointed his wife of 65 years, Ellen R. Gordon, 83, to assume his post as CEO and chairman. She was previously president and COO. “The appointment was made in accordance with Tootsie Roll’s existing succession plan,” the firm said in a news release.

“Melvin’s life represented the very highest values in business, wisdom, generosity, and integrity,” his wife said in a statement. “Tootsie Roll has seen great growth and success during his time as chairman. Melvin’s dedication to Tootsie Roll for over 50 years as board chair, his creativity and determination were an inspiration to us all.”

RELATED: Tootsie Rolls have played a role in U.S. culture

Mr. Gordon and his wife exercised extraordinary ma-and-pa control over Tootsie Roll Industries, 7401 S. Cicero Ave.

The firm has been criticized for secretive corporate governance. In 2005, Tootsie Roll was given an “F” by the investment research firm of Glass, Lewis & Co.; the grade was based on the firm’s record of paying executives more than its peers, but performing worse. Three years later, proxy filings showed the company paid $2.2 million in salary and bonuses to the Gordons, as well as $125,000 for their Chicago apartment and a corporate jet to get them to their home in New Hampshire.

In 2008, Mr. Gordon told the Sun-Times: “We don’t see the advantage of being part of a larger company.” Further, he said, “We’re the only fairly family-run company left. Most have been swallowed up by bigger companies.”

The Gordons were extraordinarily close. A 1993 Chicago Sun-Times story described how their offices faced each other at the plant. They ate all their meals together, attended trade shows together and swam and played tennis together.

Mr. Gordon, a Harvard graduate who worked at his family’s textile business, met 18-year-old Ellen Rubin in 1949 at the Boca Raton Hotel and Club. They wed seven months later. She dropped out of college and they had four daughters: Virginia, Karen, Wendy and Lisa.

Ellen Gordon’s father had the top job at Tootsie Roll. When he stepped down, her husband took over.

She credited Mr. Gordon with encouraging her career at the company. Often, she said, she traveled with a baby in tow to business meetings.

Mr. Gordon extolled the near-indestructible virtues of their candy in 1996. “Nothing can happen to a Tootsie Roll,” he said. “We have some that were made in 1938 that we still eat. If you can’t bite it when it’s that old, you certainly can lick it.”

Tootsie Rolls also earned a place in American pop culture for longevity and chewiness. The Chicago icon was used as an energy boost in World War II military rations, and was air-dropped to grateful soldiers fighting in the Korean War. Tootsie rolls were even used to plug fuel drums, radiators and gas tanks hit by enemy bullets. The confection was also the name of a popular 1990s rap song, “Tootsee Roll” by the group 69 Boyz.

The business was founded in New York City in 1896 by Austrian immigrant Leo Hirschfield, who named the candy for his daughter, Clara, whom he called “Tootsie.”

The company moved to Chicago in 1968, and its candy basket grew to include Junior Mints, Sugar Daddy, DOTS, Crows, Sugar Babies, Charleston Chew, Blow Pop, Dubble Bubble, Andes mints, and the Tootsie Roll Pop.

Mr. Gordon is also survived by six grandchildren. Services will be private.


Tootsie Rolls make their way down the conveyor belt at the firm’s plant on South Cicero Avenue. | Sun-Times Library

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