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From teen to greeting-card millionaire

Seventeen and loaded with energy and ambition and solid plans for an almost limitless future, the skinny kid from Fitchburg, Mass., had barely gotten his high school diploma that spring when he trained his focus on college – and a career as a chemist.

Harry Doehla’s parents, dawn-to-dusk textile workers of modest means, lit up with pride when the conversation turned to their only son, a gregarious young man who cheerfully began to contribute to the family finances "ever since I’d been able to run about."

Spring turned to summer. Suddenly, something was going on with Harry. He wasn’t himself. Doctors diagnosed rheumatic fever. It wouldn’t be long, Harry was told, before he’d lose his ability to walk.

"I was crippled. Useless," the devastated kid told himself. "They say that at some point (in) life … everyone knows despair. I knew it at the age of 17."

Harry M. Doehla wrote those words in April 1950, some three decades after his illness robbed him of full use of his limbs and "began to do to my heart and mind what it had done to my legs and arms."

By then, the kid who once sat alone in his parents’ kitchen, nursing a sense of bitterness "growing in me like a rank weed" and lashing out angrily over the lousy hand he’d been dealt was a millionaire, sitting atop a wildly successful greeting-card publishing house that Nashua was smart enough to lure to town in those economically uncertain post-Textron years.

I picked today to
write about the teenage entrepreneur-turned-direct-marketing tycoon for two reasons: One, it’s wrong to write a column about Christmas cards, as I did two weeks ago, and not promptly follow it up by featuring the man whose name is synonymous with greeting cards; and two, if ever there was an employer who embodied the spirit of Christmas, it was Harry Doehla.

Perhaps the benevolence, both as a boss
and human being, for which Doehla was known was rooted in the powerful sense of faith that he
writes about in the mini-
autobiography I quoted earlier. But what is clear is how adamant he was that his employees, from the execs to the part-timers in the packing room, would benefit from quality health care – and pay little to nothing for it.

In other words, Harry Doehla never forgot. He knew what it was like to sit alone day after day in a makeshift wheelchair with no clue what lie ahead, and whatever he could do to keep his employees healthy and happy, he was going to do it.

"Due to his physical handicap … Mr. Doehla is highly sensitive and aware about the welfare of his employees," wrote a Telegraph reporter in a huge welcome-to-Nashua package of stories and photos in July 1951.

Even in an era when health care costs and insurance were so reasonable and the system so straightforward that employers commonly tossed coverage into employees’ benefits packages at no extra cost, Doehla still stood out among his peers.

Once settled in Nashua, Doehla enrolled his employees in a Blue Cross-Blue Shield plan for which he picked up the entire tab. Not only did it pay for every hurt or ill an employee might encounter, but also provided a "well-equipped first-aid room staffed by a full-time nurse" within the plant "where workers may consult (the nurse) about any aliments they might have," according to the Telegraph story.

Talk about a Cadillac plan. But Doehla still wasn’t done.

Next up was a unique plan by which the company would partner with a local physician who would spend one day a week at the plant conducting consultations and making diagnoses "free of charge to all personnel." And oh, if the physician recommends X-rays, no problem; the company will pick up the tab.

I don’t think it would be a stretch to assume the vast majority of the 700 local folks who went to work for Harry Doehla when he moved to Nashua felt fortunate to be in his employ. But I know for sure how grateful the entire city was when Doehla decided to move to downtown Nashua.

Like many endeavors that turn out successfully, it was a combination of luck and skill that landed Doehla in Nashua. Luck, in that he’d just about maxed out his scattered spaces down in Fitchburg around the same time a group of Nashua movers and shakers known collectively as the Nashua New Hampshire Foundation were ramping up their efforts to woo new industry to town in the wake of the great Textron pullout of 1948.

Millions upon millions of square feet of Nashua mill space needed filling now that Royal Little took Textron and moved south to the land of lower wages and fewer regulations favorable to corporate types like him. More importantly, too many of the 3,000 workers Textron left behind were still searching for jobs.

I have no idea how many Textron refugees landed under Harry Doehla’s roof, but I’d bet his workforce of 700 included more than a few.

I can’t recall ever meeting Harry Doehla, who died in 1971, but it’s hard not to be inspired by such a compelling rags-to-riches tale and how, from all accounts, he conducted himself with the same benevolence and social consciousness when he made his third or fourth million as he did when he hit his first thousand.

And while it’s obvious that Doehla came to lean heavily on his spiritual beliefs and deeply held faith along the way, the fact he was able to summon the strength – both literally and figuratively – to turn pain-filled hours sketching one Christmas card design to presiding over a multi-national industry represents nothing less than a monumental triumph of the human spirit even to those of us more casual believers.

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6443, dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com or @Telegraph_DeanS.