The Theosophical Society in America

Personal Reminiscences on the Origins of the Kern Foundation

Originally printed in the SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2007 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Kern, John. "Personal Reminiscences on the Origins of the Kern Foundation." Quest  95.5 (SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2007):

Although we each may have entered the Theosophical Society through different doors and at different times, we are all indebted to the inspiration, creativity, and motivation of our founders and the dedicated supporters of Theosophy over the past century. Each of us, in ways as different as our many paths, would like to give back to the Society which has given us so much. Herb Kern had the opportunity to establish the Kern Foundation in order to provide financial assistance for the spread of Theosophy into the future. During her administration as president of the American Section, Joy Mills and Kern Foundation Programs Committee expanded the effect of Herb Kern's contribution. In the following articles, John Kern and Joy Mills reflect on those early days.

By John Kern

How did the Kern Foundation, dedicated to aid in the spiritual enlightenment of humanity through access to Theosophy, come about? How did Theosophy, itself, enter into Herb Kern's life? And what other effects did it have on him?

The answer is that this endowment for the furtherance of the Theosophical Movement was established by Herbert Arthur Kern in the late 1950s, as he became aware of the jeopardy of the future of the Theosophical Society in the post World War II era. At that time, unless significant additional funds became available for their programs and other activities, the Theosophical Society in America would not survive. But, to answer the rest of the questions, there is a much richer and interesting story.

Herbert Kern was born in 1890 on a farm in Minnesota, the last of four children of Josephine and Charles Kern. He was innately interested in how things worked and why. One day in 1907, after pedaling to high school in nearby Stillwater, he answered an ad in the local paper by a resident doctor. The doctor had just purchased an automobile, the first one in the city, and he wanted to hire a part-time chauffeur. My dad was the only person to answer that ad, as no one else (including my father) had personally seen an automobile. He got the job, we presume, simply on his bravado and demeanor. He told me he arrived an hour early for the interview, read the manual from cover to cover, and ended up driving the good doctor out to White Bear Lake to see a patient that very afternoon! As a result of this experience, he became a lifelong auto enthusiast, passing along this interest to both his sons. We saw every antique car he could find on our family travels around the United States during the 1930s and '40s, and had explained to us the inner workings of all of them. Upon graduating high school, my father went to Minneapolis to register as a freshman at the University of Minnesota. In the registration office, he noticed an announcement on the bulletin board about a brand new department—Chemical Engineering. As he recounted to me many years later, he signed up because he wanted to be involved in the very latest and newest field of study. He also met some young Masons, whose religious ideas were a far cry from those of the conservative German Lutheran Church across from the farm where he lived. He became a Mason and joined Acacia, their social fraternity at the University. (Acacia's founders established the fraternity in 1904 on a unique basis. Membership was restricted to those who had already taken the Masonic obligations, and the organization was to be built on the ideals and principles inculcated by the vows taken by Master Masons. Members were to be motivated by a desire for high scholarship and of such character that the fraternity would be free of the social vices and unbecoming activities that for years had been a blot on fraternity life.)

My father received his Chemical Engineering degree in 1913. But, he also had met a wonderful young lady, Edith Speckman, (my mother to be) and did not want to lose her while she completed her final year of studies, so he studied an additional year and received a second degree, this one in Chemistry. My parents were married after graduation. My father's first job was as the first research chemist for the Pure Oil Company, where he worked on oil additives and the use of detergents in lubricating oils as cleansing agents. In 1917, with America's entry into the World War, he joined the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps office in Chicago where he was placed in charge of the specification and procurement of fuels and lubricants for the War Department. It was there he met Frederick Salathe, Jr., a professor of chemistry at Indiana University, from whom he learned about using sodium aluminates as a flocculating agent (a means of separating out and precipitating suspended particles in fluids).

He saw the potential for developing the use of this process to clarify both industrial and domestic water supplies. After the war ended, and with financial backing from the family of this professor, he founded the Chicago Chemical Company to produce and market this technology.

During the early 1920s, my father met members of the Holyoke Branch of the TSA. Apparently while on a business trip to visit paper mills in the area to sell them his water treating chemicals. Members Jennie Ferris and Helen Tait turned over to him several books on Theosophy, and that got him started. Today, those books with their names inscribed, are in my personal library. My father joined the Holyoke Branch, even thigh he lived in a suburb of Chicago, and his name is listed in archival branch membership records from 1931 and 1941. He was a voracious reader and I actually recall driving in a Model A Ford Coupe out to Olcott on a Sunday in 1931, as he often borrowed books from the new American Section administrative headquarters library in Wheaton.

Theosophy's message about being responsible for one's actions and their effects upon others resonated with my father's own informal style. He established profit sharing, medical expense coverage, retirement pensions, an employee stock purchase plan, and other programs geared towards developing partnerships with all involved in his company. He saw each person as having a vital role to play in the success of the total enterprise: from the employees, all of whom he knew on a first name basis during the early years and whom he felt should be compensated on a fair and equitable basis; to the stockholders who provided the capital to start and run the business; as well as the company's customers and suppliers.

One personal case I recall vividly, as I knew the individual well, was one of my father's department heads, Mr. Moriarty, who contracted adult poliomyelitis. This employee's prognosis was eventual total paralysis. My father arranged for Mr. Moriarty to have almost daily treatments by our family osteopath. Dr. Evans massaged and manipulated Mr. Moriarty's limbs to maintain their muscle tone, and after ten years (at full salary) Mr. Moriarty returned to his office at the company, same job, albeit in a wheel chair!

In the late 1930s, as the country began to gear up for the coming world conflict, the local chemical suppliers my dad had helped out by always paying his bills promptly during the Depression years, came to his rescue as these chemicals became in short supply. They put my father's firm at the head of their shipment lists. And, as the company developed, my father continued to focus on solving pollution problems and other environmentally sensitive issues.

I had an extensive childhood acquaintanceship with the Theosophical books from my father's library, which the two of us discussed regularly. When I came back from World War II in the spring of 1946, I began attending the Summer Sessions in Wheaton and that year joined the Society. I was so affected by the international Theosophical leaders attending these post war annual Summer Sessions that I convinced my father to come out to Olcott and attend not just the occasional Sunday lecture, but the entire series of talks. As a result, he became an active member of the Theosophical Society as well. Soon, he was invited to attend the TSA Board meetings as Financial Advisor. Sitting in on those meetings, my father saw that the new dynamism of the post-war TSA leadership needed greatly-enhanced financial support in order to achieve their new goals and objectives.

He also visited Krotona and was introduced to the idea of it becoming an educational center for Theosophists. He was elected to the Krotona Board. Soon, he embarked on the building of a guest house to handle anticipated visiting theosophical researchers, faculty for a School of Theosophy, as well as attendees. (Several years after my father's death, when his foundation had become active, I wrote N. Sri Ram, the international president and head of Krotona, and received his approval to support this School of Theosophy at Krotona.)

My father had decided to continue this support after his death, so he established a foundation to offer aid in the dissemination of the theosophical philosophy, thus setting an example for others. The foundation was funded by the Founder's stock he had received for establishing and leading his firm, by then renamed Nalco Chemical Company. The resulting document named his two sons, my younger brother Herb Jr. and me, to be life personal trustees, to operate under a corporate trustee position administered by the Northern Trust Company. My dad shared these intentions with me and my brother, who though not a Theosophist, was completely supportive of our father's wishes. I suggested my father should provide for flexibility in the selection of the organizations and the amounts to be distributed, as the effectiveness of organizations can vary with the passage of time. I was then named to advise the corporate trustee "as to distributions of income and principal . . ., the organizations to receive distributions, and the amount or proportions each such organization is to receive by way of distribution."

My dad had hoped others would make major contributions as well, but none were immediately forthcoming. So, with Alonzo Decker, co-founder of Black and Decker, John Sellon (a senior re-insurance executive), and several leaders of the Society, the Theosophical Investment Trust was established, with my dad's lawyer writing the document. It is, in effect, an in-house endowment for the Society into which all individual major gifts and bequests are placed for professional investment management.

My father had a vision for enabling Theosophy to become a vital part of the lives of many more than those who might accidentally come across books on Theosophy, as he had. The first major program the Kern Foundation supported at the TSA was the Quest Books publishing venture, his dream of aiding in the prospects for many more persons coming in contact with up-dated contemporary Theosophical literature. Joy Mills, who had just become president of the TSA when the Foundation was activated in 1966, was a tremendous support as we created the first programs to receive grants. The Kern Foundation continues to fund the Society's publishing activities, along with major support for the professional staff at the National Center and their internationally-used web page,, in addition to many other educational programs.

From a "white paper" I wrote to our Corporate Trustee in 1987, the bank accepted the concept of a continuing Kern Family Advisor in future generations, if a family member is interested in Theosophy and has the time to commit to the Foundation. Currently, my daughter Louise, along with the Corporate Trustee, are sharing with me in the development, investigation, and deliberation of grant proposals. Our son John Jr. (Jay) serves as a Trustee of the Theosophical Investment Trust and on the Legal Committee of the TSA.

For a world so greatly in need of understanding the essential unity of all life and our individual responsibility for our actions affecting all other people, all living things, and our environment, the ideas encompassed in the Theosophical Worldview could well offer one of the most important messages in the post World War II period.

After nearly forty years, the Kern Foundation still provides the single most important outside support for the American Section of the Society. Yet, the success of the National Center can continue to grow only if others will step up to provide even greater funding in order to support additional programmatic as well as much needed capital improvements. Today, even the combination of the Kern Foundation and the Theosophical Investment Trust cannot provide sufficient funds for all that could be done. We must continue to seek out new contributions which will allow for the increase of the outreach of the Society. Though we are enormously proud of my father's remarkable legacy, we know that new and increased contributions, regardless of size, are essential to support this expanded outreach of Theosophy. Think of your ability to impact the Society even decades from now, and show your support through a financial contribution.