Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 14
 
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
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Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton


MAN IN MOTION: "I've been blessed with creativity, energy, and good health. I'm 84 and still going strong!" Herbert W. Hobler, shown in his Princeton office, is a man of many interests and endeavors.

Long-time Princeton Resident Herbert W. Hobler Has Been in the Action and Shaped Events

Herbert Windsor Hobler is an idea man. He is curious, energetic, enthusiastic, and effective. Whether flying in a B-29 super-fortress bomber as navigator in World War II, selling the first ad spot for the “Today” TV show in 1952, continuing his 6,205 consecutive day walking streak, or establishing Princeton’s first commercial radio station, he brims over with innovative ideas and constructive solutions.

As his long-time friend, author John Brinster puts it: “Herb is unusually creative and a man of many talents and interests. He thrives on accomplishment. Constantly moving, he is concerned with his family, his community, his alma mater. Though born with a silver spoon, and with a successful and powerful father, he has always been compassionate about those of lesser fortune. His great interest in creating a local radio station and in reviving the American BoyChoir School are typical of his desire to contribute to society and the life of the community.”

Mr. Hobler is also rarely at a loss for words, nor does he hesitate to share his opinions. “I was always one to speak out,” he says. “Some of that came from my need to challenge my father, who was an extraordinary man and an extraordinary advertising executive. As the youngest son, I needed to express my thoughts and opinions.”

Atherton W. Hobler, founder-chairman of the prestigious Benton & Bowles advertising agency, and Ruth Windsor Hobler were parents to two other sons, Edward and Wells, and a daughter Virginia.

The family moved from St. Louis, where Herb was born, to Bronxville, N.Y. in 1925. Herb enjoyed growing up in that New York City suburb. He went to the movies on Saturday afternoons, mainly to see Westerns, which were his favorites, especially those starring the famous cowboy Tom Mix.

He loved woodworking, and taught by his uncle, he particularly liked making model ships and airplanes. “Remember,” he says, “in my generation, kids ran outside to watch airplanes go by.”

American History

As for school, his performance depended on his interests. “When I wanted to work hard, I got good grades,” he reports, “but I wasn’t always interested.”

Later, when he attended The Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., he became very involved in American history, a result of the influence of his history teacher, Mr. Robbins. It is an interest that continues today. He reads biographies, enjoying John Adams by David McCullough, a recent book about Andrew Carnegie, and is currently reading about actor and Princeton University graduate Jimmy Stewart.

“In school, I always liked the girls,” says Mr. Hobler, “and in the sixth grade, a new girl came to town. I took a liking to her, and she, to me. I took Anne Baxter to dancing school. Then, she and her family moved to New York City, where she had a part in a play. When she was 16, she invited me to her Christmas dance at The Brearley School.

We had a teenage romance, and I later invited her to Princeton dances when I was a freshman.”

His friendship with the famous movie star-to-be continued when Ms. Baxter moved to Hollywood, and later, Mr. Hobler and his wife visited her there, and she also came to Princeton.

Some of Mr. Hobler’s happiest boyhood memories are of summer camp in Maine and Vermont and summer visits to his maternal grandparents’ home north of Green Bay, Wisconsin. “They had a house on Lake Michigan, and I loved it,” he recalls. “Other happy times were the trips we took. Mom drove us to New Orleans for one Easter, and we also went to Washington, D.C. to see the sights. The best part was when I was eight or nine, and we flew over Washington in a tri-motor plane. It was also exciting to fly to the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago on a 21-passenger DC-2.”

When Herb was 14, the family moved to Stamford, Conn., “after my mom suggested that maybe Dad should get a farm. He got 132 acres with Guernsey cows, and I spent a lot of time working on that farm.”

Super Chief

An experience of a different kind came along in 1938, when Herb accompanied orchestra leader Meredith Willson (later composer of The Music Man) to Los Angeles on the famous Super Chief train. “Meredith Willson had been hired by my father’s ad agency to lead the orchestra in the weekly Maxwell House ‘Good News of 1938’ radio show.” remembers Mr. Hobler. “En route from England to Hollywood, he had spent the weekend at our home in Connecticut.”

After a certain amount of pleading, Herb spent two weeks with Willson in Hollywood, and as he says, “It was a dream-come-true for a young movie fan to go to the NBC studio and meet Spencer Tracy, Robert Young, Mary Martin, and Ray Milland, all stars on the first two shows I watched.”

Never one to let an opportunity go by unexplored, Herb then suggested that Mr. Willson get him a date with a young star!

“Two days later, Meredith and his wife took me to a fancy restaurant, and Judy Garland and her mother walked in and joined us for dinner. She was 15, too, just a month away from starting The Wizard of Oz. I squired her around the dance floor for the better part of two hours. What a time!”

After graduating from The Hill School, Herb followed his brothers Ed and Wells to Princeton, Class of ’44.

“Co-incidentally, the summer of 1941, my dad bought a 200-acre farm off The Great Road. Ultimately, he had 600 acres and the number one Guernsey herd in the country. And I had to work on that farm too!”

Herb loved Princeton. He had many friends, played JV football, varsity basketball, and was on the track team.

Triangle Club

“One of my major extra curricular activities was in conjunction with the Presbyterian Association’s Westminster Society and the Negro YMCA. I met regularly with 12 to 13 year-old boys, and we read Bible stories, went on hikes, and spent time together. I made some life-long friends with them.”

He also joined the Triangle Club, appearing in and composing music for some of the famous shows, even imitating Groucho Marx in one of them. Weekends (during the days of an all-male Princeton University) were often spent at Vassar and other girls’ colleges, or with girls invited to Princeton parties.

“During the week, we studied,” he reports. He had decided to major in Spanish and minor in music, the latter a life-long passion. He had started playing the piano when he was eight, composing a year or two later, and at one time, hoped for a career as a composer.

Life at the University was interrupted by the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, and Herb promptly enlisted in the Army Air Corps. During the course of the war, 85 percent of his classmates served in the military.

“Because so many of us had enlisted, the Air Corps told us to stay in school until we were called. I was called up during junior year, and went to Atlantic City for basic training. The military had taken over the hotels. Then, I spent four months at Michigan State, studying both academics and military procedure.”

That was followed by assignment to Santa Ana Air Base in California for pre-flight training, then later to Las Vegas and Texas for gunnery and navigation training.

Seven Dates

The time spent in California was memorable for reasons quite removed from the Air Corps, he reports. “I had a date with a girl from Vassar, and she said ‘do you remember a girl from Bronxville named Mary Randolph?’ I said yes, of course, since I had gone to kindergarten through seventh grade with her. It turned out she was going to Occidental College in California. We met again, had seven dates on seven weekends, and I proposed! This month, we will celebrate our 63rd year of marriage!”

After their wedding in Texas, the couple went to Boca Raton, Fla. where 2nd LT. Hobler received radar training, a very new technology at the time. Then, on to McCook Air Base in Nebraska for training on the B-29 super-fortress bombers, which were flown in the Pacific theater of the war.

Going overseas in January 1945, Lt. Hobler served as navigator on 10 missions, including the famous low-flying, high-risk bombing of Tokyo, March 10, 1945, which caused widespread devastation and more than 100,000 casualties. He was recently interviewed by a Japanese reporter and The Times of Trenton for his recollections of the event.

When the war ended, Mr. Hobler returned to Princeton University to complete his degree, and he and his wife lived on Park Place. Their first child Randolph was born in 1946 while Mr. Hobler was still at the University. Later, daughters Deborah, Mary, and Nancy were also born in Princeton.

After graduating in 1946, he joined the Mutual Broadcasting System. At first hesitant to take on the Princeton-New York commute, he came to realize that New York was where the action was.

“I didn’t like watching my dad commute all those years, and I thought I’d like something nearer home. Johnson & Johnson offered me a job as a trainee, and then Mutual Broadcasting made an offer. The man at Mutual said, did I want to make band-aids or be in radio, and he offered me more money.”

Exciting Time

No contest! After three years at Mutual in programming and sales, he moved over to NBC as one of the first five salesman for the NBC television network. “I had read that in 1949, NBC was going to split radio into separate radio and television divisions. There were then a million and a half TV sets in the country, and only 19 cities could show it live.”

That was an exciting time. “Everything was a first, and everything was live,” he points out. “I was inspired and influenced about how important ideas are by Pat Weaver, head of NBC when I was there. In 1951, he came into a sales meeting, and said NBC starts at 4 p.m. and goes until 10 p.m. ‘Well, I’m going to start at 7 a.m. and call it Today with news from all over the world.’ People were shocked and said, ‘Who would watch TV at 7 a.m.?’”

Moving on to CBS for two years, he was in network sales, and involved with I Love Lucy, The Jackie Gleason Show, Omnibus, and other hit shows.

In 1954, he became vice president at the new TelePrompTer Corporation. “I spent five years at this little pioneering company,” he recalls. “We met lots of famous people, and in selling our TelePrompTer services to the Republican National Committee in 1956, while sitting in a taxi with actor, later Senator George Murphy, I roughed out a sketch of the staging platform to be made at the Cow Palace in San Francisco for the Convention. This led to a meeting with President Eisenhower at the White House for TelePrompTer services.”

After serving as head of production and supervising thousands of TV commercials at Video Tape Productions in New York, Mr. Hobler decided to head home to Princeton. “I was tired of commuting,” he explains, “and Ralph Mason, who was dedicated to Princeton, helped me set up Nassau Broadcasting Company. There were six stockholders, all on the YMCA board and committed to a community service radio station. After prolonged negotiations with the FCC, it started full-scale broadcasting in September, 1963 as Princeton’s first commercial AM radio station.

“My goal was to start a community radio station,” he continues. “We broadcast Princeton University football games, had women’s programs, Jeanne Silvester’s interview show, and we used a mobile unit to cover noteworthy special events, demonstrations, accidents, etc. In three years, we carried public service announcements from 800 different organizations.”

Lost Pets

Mr. Hobler was not only the founder, principal owner, and overseer, he was also on-air. “I did 18 years as color commentator for Princeton football and basketball, 13 years as host of the WHWH Pops Classics, and I did editorials.”

The establishment of Nassau Broadcasting is one of Mr. Hobler’s proudest achievements. In the 23 years of his stewardship, it won many awards, and had scores of listeners all over Princeton and the area. It introduced a number of new segments, including announcements of lost pets, panel discussions, and Youth Speaks Up, featuring high school students.

“One of the things I did in radio was to editorialize,” he observes. “I criticized the FCC and the Supreme Court for the Fairness Doctrine, and I later created the Declaration of Broadcast Freedoms, a broadcasting document speaking to the need for broadcast First Amendment Freedoms.”

He was honored to receive the “Radio Broadcaster of the Year Award Nationally” in 1973 for his editorializing, and this led to his selection to the Board of Directors of the National Association of Broadcasters from 1976 to 1980, and to his role as Chairman of the NAB First Amendment Committee.

He sold Nassau Broadcasting in 1986, and eventually, it went off the air. Many former listeners miss tuning in.

“Thanks to the radio station,” he points out, “I was involved in so many things that were fun and helpful, was asked to serve on this or that committee, and was able to contribute to the community.”

Fund-Raiser

That is certainly the case with his involvement with the American BoyChoir School. “In 1974, I was asked to serve on the board of the then Columbus BoyChoir. They had been having financial trouble, and we had a fund-raiser. Then in 1977, I became chairman of the board. When they were still having difficulties, I suggested they change their name to the American BoyChoir to reflect their wider reputation and announce a $7-million fund-raiser. It worked.

“They are the number one boy choir in this country and among the best in the world,” he continues. “They sing regularly in Philharmonic Hall in New York, have sung in 30 countries, and in excess of 500 communities in the U.S. I am so pleased I’ve had a part in saving that organization.”

One of those whom Mr. Hobler consulted when fund-raising for the BoyChoir was his god-father, Clarence Francis, chairman of General Foods, advisor to five Presidents, and a man he greatly admired.

“My father was a strict disciplinarian, and his best friend Clarence was more relaxed. As a young boy, I was impressed by his soft wisdom. If I had a problem, I could go to him, he’d listen, then say, ‘Here’s what you might consider doing.’ He was just a wonderful person, and had the greatest influence on me.

“Clarence was co-chairman with John D. Rockefeller in raising money for Lincoln Center, and when I was working in fund-raising for the BoyChoir, I visited him, and asked whether I could see Mr. Rockefeller.

“He looked at me and said, ‘I think Mr. Rockefeller would want to know what kind of man this school turns out.’ That really struck me, and I hurried to find out what the graduates had done in later years. I got back to Clarence with the information, and later received a check for $10,000 from Mr. Rockefeller.”

Brick Walk

The BoyChoir is indeed an organization very close to Mr. Hobler’s heart, as his good friend and former Princeton resident, Dick Armstrong affirms. “The number of worthwhile enterprises in which Herb has been constructively involved over the years is mind-boggling. But the one about which he is most passionate is the American BoyChoir School, where he has served as chairman and chairman emeritus for three decades. For most of those years, I have served by his side on the board, and I can personally attest to his enormous generosity, deep devotion, and capable leadership.”

Another area in which Mr. Hobler put his persuasive fund-raising efforts to work is the “Spirit of Princeton”, the organization which stages the Memorial Day Parade, Flag Day, and Veteran’s Day ceremonies, and the Fourth of July fireworks. In particular, he was responsible for establishing the “20th Century Recognition Brick Walk’, which helps to endow the Spirit of Princeton. Individuals may purchase a brick inscribed with their name or that of someone deceased.

“We raised $400,000 for the Brick Walk, including $250,000 from 2500 bricks, and two things made it work,” explains Mr. Hobler. “Town Topics ran a list of names of people who purchased bricks for 85 weeks, and it was exclusive to people who had lived or worked in Princeton in the 20th century.

“I also can’t say enough about Ray Wadsworth and his work for the Spirit of Princeton. He really started it, and it was incredibly important. He has done so much for this town.”

Mr. Wadsworth, a life-long Princeton resident and former Borough Councilman, is equally appreciative of Mr. Hobler’s contribution. “When I talked about raising money for the fireworks, Herb heard about it, and said ‘Ray, I’ll help you out.’ We started working together, and Herb contacted people he knew, and raised a lot of money. He’s a great guy. To have a friend like him, and to do what we’re doing for the town together is wonderful.”

Mr. Hobler’s dedication to Princeton University is another important focus. An active and involved alumnus, he has never missed a Princeton reunion, and has served as class secretary for 11 years, class president for five years, on Alumni Council for five years, and as co-chairman Class Reunions, and also on the board of governors for Tiger Inn (his club) for 30 years. He served on the Service of Remembrance Committee, and also as P-Rade Marshall for many years. Three years ago, he was honored with the Service to the University Alumni Award.

In Touch

“Herb has been a Princeton volunteer since his graduation,” points out Adrienne Rubin, Associate Director of Class Affairs at the Alumni Association, and Princeton, Class of ’88. “He is one of those wonderful Princeton volunteers who never stops thinking about the University and how he can be of service. He is always willing to take a call or field a question, and over the years, he has connected with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Princetonians. We are very lucky to have him as a resource, a volunteer, and a Princetonian.”

Mr. Hobler has stayed in touch with many of his classmates and other Princeton alums. One of those is John Brinster, Class of ’43. They didn’t really come into contact until after their years at the University, and they became neighbors. Now, after many years of association, he reflects on what his friendship with Mr. Hobler has meant to him.

“It is indeed difficult to review our now 60 years of informal association — where we started, how it all progressed: the houses, the children, the grandchildren, projects, family emotions, the dogs, the cars, the snow, the storms, the swimming pools, the school, the ballets, the yard, the birthdays. It is all now compressed in some sort of neural CD, much of which can still be accessed and played at will — programs that can compare favorably among those of all fellow man.”

In addition to his work for the “Spirit of Princeton”, Mr. Hobler has taken leadership roles in a number of areas in the community, and given his time and effort to many organizations, charities, and causes. Just a sampling includes serving on the boards of the Princeton YMCA (20 years), Hun School, United Fund, and Trenton USO. He was co-founder and chairman of the board of ETHNIC RADIO NETWORK, INC, and creator-producer of “Festival of Song” (including six Princeton choral groups) to benefit the United Fund.

He created the idea and name of “Executive Club” for the Princeton YMCA to attract non-active local and commuting executives (still going strong after 40 years). He was communications chairman of the Princeton Bi-Centennial Committee and New Jersey Bi-Centennial Committee, and chairman of Princeton Township’s 150th Anniversary Committee in 1988.

“That was quite an experience,” he reports, referring to the Township celebration. “We got all the people together who had ancestors here in 1838, the time of the Township’s incorporation.

“I was also on the first Consolidation Committee and all the succeeding committees, and I have continued to support Consolidation. I believe it is in the best interests of both municipalities. We are one community in virtually every way, except in government.”

Major Importance

The “domestic tranquility and general welfare” of Princeton (where he lived for some 60 years before recently moving to Stonebridge of Montgomery) is of major importance to Mr. Hobler. “When I first came to Princeton in 1940, there were maybe 11,000 people in the Borough and the Township. Parts of the Township were still farms and fields. The Shopping Center came along in 1954, and there was objection to that.

“The Borough and Township governments were 100 percent Republican then. I am a registered Republican, but I vote for the person, not the party. My recollection is that 50 years ago, elected officials were serving the community, and party meant very little.

“Later, I admired Millicent Fenwick, the former Congresswoman from New Jersey. She was a hard worker and non-partisan. I remember before she was elected, she strode into my office at the radio station, shook my hand firmly, sat down, and said, ‘Do you mind if I smoke my pipe?’”

The late Congresswoman Fenwick was only one of many famous people, political and otherwise, Mr. Hobler has met and worked with over the years. To name only some: Presidents Hoover, Eisenhower, Ford, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and President to-be Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.

Despite changes and enormous population growth, Mr. Hobler finds much to admire about Princeton. “Princeton is still a village to me. My office is downtown, and you don’t see Rolls Royces and Bentleys here, even with people who could afford them. There’s no pretentious show of wealth. You don’t read about debutante balls. To a large extent, everyone mixes on an even plane. There is a wonderful mix of people and a tremendous volunteer spirit here.”

One of the great appeals of Princeton for Mr. Hobler is its abundance of opportunities for walking. After his wife and family and his adored golden retrievers, the love of his life is walking. He is a devout and dedicated walker. And like the postman of old, “neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet” deters him.

Moving Experience

He has walked in fog, in snowstorms, in cemeteries, on sandy beaches, in early morning darkness, in the 81 countries he and his wife Randy have toured, and in half of the 50 states he has visited. He has written a book Walking, A Moving Experience, published in 1999, which includes vignettes of pre-breakfast walks at home and around the world.

“It started by accident,” he recalls. “A friend was visiting, and I suggested we jog in the morning. He said he couldn’t since his by-pass, but how about a walk?”

That was in 1982, and since then he has rarely missed a pre-breakfast morning jaunt. In fact, he walked 6,205 consecutive days, averaging three miles a day. “To keep my streak going, I have walked on airplanes, ships at sea, in snowstorms, rain, and seen hundreds of sunrises. I feel better for it, and unlike joggers, I take my notepad and pencil, so when a creative thought occurs, I can capture it. And there is always time to stop and smell the roses.”

To this date, Mr. Hobler has walked some 8,000 days, covering 49,000 miles. On all of his excursions at home, he has been accompanied by one of his golden retrievers, adding to the joy of the “moving experience.” Among places his footsteps have taken him have been on board the Orient Express, Fifth Avenue from 59th Street down to the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan, by the famous Easter Island Statues, the northernmost boundary of Norway, the tropical heat of the Seychelles Islands, England’s green hills and meadows, and the crowded streets of Hong Kong.

In 1991, when he and Mrs. Hobler took a 35-day trip around the world, he walked every day, covering 160 miles.

And why does he do this? As he says in his book, “I walk every morning before breakfast for the joy of keeping all my senses alert, to see, touch, hear, and smell the world along the way …. Each walk stimulates my mind and body with an attitude of curiosity and anticipation.”

His curiosity, creativity, and energy show no signs of abating. He continues to work in marketing at his Princeton office, plays backgammon most days at the Nassau Club, and schedules speakers for the Wednesday lunches at the Nassau Club (more than 800 speakers over the last 21 years!).

Town and Gown

His ideas still flourish. As his friend Dick Armstrong, Princeton Class of ’46, points out, “Herb sees possibilities when others see only obstacles. Even in his mid-eighties, he is still one of the most excitingly creative and energetic persons I know. When I speak of Herb Hobler, it will always be in superlatives.”

Adds Nancy W. Kieling, President and Executive Director of the Princeton Area Community Foundation, and who has worked with Mr. Hobler on several projects: “Herb isone of the most creative people I know, and he always brings energy, and maybe best of all, effectiveness, to the things he gets involved with. He gives generously of his time, talent and treasure — all three — and can make things happen. He is as dedicated to Princeton, town and gown, as anyone I know, and the community is lucky to have him.”

Mr. Hobler is grateful for his continuing capacity to initiate ideas — and action. “I have been blessed with having ideas. Once, I said to my staff: ‘Don’t say it’s impossible. Say how is it possible?’ I become the catalyst. I still get ideas, and I still somehow spark ideas. I have thoroughly enjoyed being in a creative business.

“I have to say, too, I couldn’t have done any of this without my secretary and assistant for 21 years, Bonnie Chiravale. She is not only an expert on computers, with extraordinary capabilities, she is a very close friend and part of the family.”

Mr. Hobler is exceptionally proud of his wife Randy and his family. “Randy is now the editor and ‘mild-mannered’ reporter of ‘Views From the Bridge’, a monthly newsletter she founded at Stonebridge, and is also on two or three residential committees there. And she has put up with me for 63 years!

“Our son Randolph, Princeton ’68, is currently trying to sell a Broadway musical about Meredith Willson, and daughter Debbie, in California, is a breast cancer survivor, and has written books about the experience. Our daughter Mary is married to a Princeton man and is a professional photographer in Connecticut. Our daughter Nancy is an extraordinary travel agent in Washington, D.C.”

As Mr. Hobler looks ahead, he hopes for many more good days, good walks, and good times with family and friends. “I look forward to being as active as I can for an indefinite period of time. I look forward to good years ahead!”

In 1962, he was selected as a Town Topics “Man of the Week”. Since that time, in every sense, Mr. Hobler has become a “Princeton Personality.”

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