On a summer afternoon in 2009, Arthur Gerstenberger, a beloved, legendary figure in Co-op history, made a surprise visit to a celebration honoring Co-op employees. Photos from that afternoon show the usual Arthur, with his warm, broad face and cheerful eyes. He wore a light gray polo shirt and pressed chinos. His hair was thick and white and glistened in the sun.
Arthur took a seat at a table under a small tent. Before long, others took turns gathering around him to greet the former Co-op general manager and hear what he had to say.
But Arthur wanted to listen more than talk. People would later say it was classic Arthur: engaged, curious, and vested in the well-being of others and the cooperative he steered for decades.
“Some of my most vivid memories of Arthur were about the staff people he worked with and remembered fondly,” said Co-op General Manager Terry Appleby. “He would mention their names frequently when we talked and it was evident he cared about them and the members of the Co-op.”
This is the Arthur everyone knew. The Arthur everyone will miss and remember.
Paying Tribute to a Cooperative Life
Arthur Gerstenberger: 1924—2016
Arthur Gerstenberger, a long-time Co-op member and employee and the Co-op’s general manager from 1965-1988, died August 15, 2016, after a brief illness. Arthur died showing the same depth of character and strength of spirit he was known for throughout his life. He was 92.
Among the employees who worked closely with Arthur was Harrison Drinkwater, a current member of the Co-op Board, who summarized the Co-op’s loss of such a humble man:
Arthur Gerstenberger was my first boss. Thirty years later I’m still trying to figure out what I admire most about him. It’s probably this: despite all his accomplishments at the Co-op, he rarely used the word “me” in any of his conversations. It was always “we.” When I interviewed him at his retirement in 1988, he summed it up, “we’re all here for one reason and that is to make the Co-op go.” Perfect and so very Arthur. Arthur’s good-natured intelligence, his concern for Co-op members and employees, and his just-plain decency will be greatly missed.
Arthur began working at the Co-op in 1949. He learned the ropes of the business from his uncle, Harry Gerstenberger, the Co-op’s first general manager.
Arthur worked in every department, gaining the skills he would need to understand every facet of the business.
He soon made a name for himself with his unique blend of humility, folksy wit, and high-level business acumen.
“Arthur was a top-notch individual who knew how to balance to the needs of the Co-op with the needs of running it as a business, which is challenging for any leader of a cooperative,” said Norm Turcotte, retired CEO and former board member of Associated Grocers of New England. “He also inherently knew whether a business decision was in the general manager’s purview or if it was the board’s responsibility. Successful co-ops are built on such insight.”
Dan Grossman is a Norwich, Vermont-based attorney who served on the Co-op Board from 1980-1990 and served as president from 1986-1990. Dan had this to say about his years working with Arthur:
Arthur Gerstenberger was wonderful at working with people. With ever-changing boards of directors comprising all types, from three-piece-suit bankers to aging hippies in bare feet. With myriad cooperators, from students to homemakers to professors. With officials at the National Cooperative Bank, fellow directors at Associated Grocers of New England, and contemporaries and colleagues at national cooperative meetings. Arthur worked well with them all because he respected them all. He listened to people’s points of view. He learned from them. Arthur listened to all those people and considered all their points of view. And then he acted. He acted in a way that respected the broad and interesting diversity within of the cooperative movement in the Upper Valley and in the United States. Basic respect for people and their points of view made Arthur a wonderful manager of our local store, a productive director of the regional cooperative, and a respected leading light of the national cooperative movement. It was my pleasure to cooperate with Arthur in the 1980s as a director and president of the Hanover Co-op. It was my honor to be his friend for nearly 40 years.
Arthur took over as general manager in 1965. He led the organization for more than two decades, years of enormous growth and change—and occasional conflict.
“One story he told me that had special meaning for me concerned the grape boycott in the late sixties,” Terry said. “The issue threatened to tear the Co-op apart. Two sides could not agree and the Board was unable to decide on a course of action. Arthur finally made a decision to pull non-union grapes and lettuce for the good of the organization. He could have faced consequences but he took the courageous course.”
A believer in the cooperative model, Arthur served on the boards of the Hanover Credit Union, Mid-East Cooperatives, the Cooperative League of the USA, the Memorial Society of NH, and Associated Grocers of New England.
Arthur retired in 1988. He would continue to stay close to the Co-op and support the cooperative movement for the rest of his life.
“I have Art to thank for inspiring me to launch, and stick with, a career in cooperatives,” said Karen Zimbelman, Director of Membership and Cooperative Relations, National Co-op Grocers. “I first met him in 1983 at a national conference for consumer cooperatives and got to know him over the years until his retirement in 1988. Art showed me, through his quiet and disciplined example, what it means to dedicate my life to this wonderful thing called ‘co-op.’ Our strong grocery co-op sector today owes Art an enormous debt of gratitude.”
A Lasting Cooperative Legacy
Robert F. Kennedy once said that each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope that can ultimately sweep down the walls of resistance.
It is an inspired notion, rooted in collective human good. Arthur’s greatest contribution may be that he affirmed the cooperative movement and its hope for humanity, and believed in the power of putting its principles into practice.
“Staff and members owe our gratitude to Arthur and Harry and Sally Gerstenberger for their devotion to the cooperative movement and the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society,” Terry said. “Great cooperators study the history of the movement and they left us that legacy. I often consult the cooperative histories they left behind—I think that gift is truly a fine example of support for the great cooperative Principle of Education.”
Despite all the praise, Arthur, a naturally humble man, saw himself as one member of a broader cooperative family. When lauded for his accomplishments, he would often say he was no more or less important than anyone else.
“I’d like to be thought of (as a manager) people can talk to, complain to, or compliment,” Arthur once said. “I want employees to see me as part of the team. We’re all here for one reason and that is to make the Co-op go.”
Arthur leaves his wife, Arleen, daughter Ellen, and sons Paul and Roy and numerous grandchildren.
Co-op Director of Public Relations Allan Reetz contributed to this post.