Ross Born talks Just Born at 100, his late dad, their legacy

By Carl Zebrowski

Editor of Hakol

Back when Ross Born’s father-in-law was in the hospital for a heart valve replacement, Ross and his wife, Wendy, traveled to Chicago to visit him.

At the check-in desk, a staffer greeted them. They gave their name. She looked at Ross. “Are you the Peeps guy?!” she asked. She called out to anyone in earshot, “The Peeps guy is here!”

Some who heard eventually wandered over to the Borns. “They’re all excited to talk about how they played with their food,” Ross recalled. “My father-in-law gained a lot of fame because of his connection to Peeps.”

In fact, the whole Born family gained a lot of fame because of Peeps, the marshmallow treats that owe their existence to Ross’s dad, Bob. This January, Bob, the Father of Peeps, died. That was one of three momentous events the Born family has experienced in the past several months. The others were Ross’s retirement as co-CEO of the Just Born company, and Just Born’s year of celebration for its 2023 centennial anniversary.

It was 100 years ago that Bob’s father, Sam, born 32 years before in Russia, opened a candy shop in Brooklyn. He put up a sign in the window to let passersby know the confections on display were “just born,” as in “freshly made.” His company had its name.

Sam relocated to Bethlehem in the following decade. By 1940 the company had created Mike and Ike, and 10 years after that, Hot Tamales — the brands of chewy, capsule-shaped candies that put Just Born on the map.

In 1946, Bob joined the company, bringing his Lehigh University engineering degree and his experience as a U.S. Navy lieutenant and radar specialist. He made his mark there in 1954, soon after Just Born bought a Lancaster company that specialized in jelly beans and also made marshmallows by hand.

Bob put his technical knowledge to work streamlining the 27-hour process to make marshmallows. By the time he perfected an automated method, the candy we know as Peeps was coming off the manufacturing line in just 6 minutes, start to finish.

Today’s machines can turn out 6 to 7 million Peeps a day, Ross said. Easter chicks are the iconic form, but Peeps fill store shelves year-round, in various shapes and colors, including for Christmas, Halloween and other holidays.

When Hakol talked with Ross a week after the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley and the Anti-Defense League cosponsored the Summit to Combat Antisemitism, he thought about his dad’s early years with Just Born in context of the current problems with hate crimes. He said his dad was always proponent of diversity.

Ross recalled his dad doing personnel work after World War II. Bethlehem Steel, fresh from enormous growth as it supplied the U.S. military effort, boomed through the postwar years and was able to pry workers away from other local factories by offering double the pay. Turnover at Just Born was high, and new faces multiplied along the lines.

A substantial portion of the newcomers were minorities, a development some of the existing staff didn’t like. One day, a few decided to do something about it. “Workers went into my dad’s office and said they can’t work with these people,” Ross recalled. He said Bob replied, “No, I don’t expect you to work with those people. You can leave now.”

His dad’s attitude never changed, Ross said. “He was one to embrace and celebrate differences,” Ross continued. “He met with the Pope, and not just for a photo shoot. Interfaith relations were really important to him.”

Ross lamented that bigotry and hate have hardly diminished. What do you do about them? “Why did people pledge their allegiance to Hitler?” he wondered. “We blame the Chinese for COVID, Japan for World War II. My dad really struggled with that: How do you change minds?”

The need for an antisemitism summit is itself evidence that targeted groups continue to struggle with those realities. The Jewish Federation and like-minded organizations have their work cut out for them.

Back in his younger days, Bob was very active in the Federation. At one point he chaired its Annual Campaign for Jewish Needs. It was during the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War in 1967. Ross was 14 back then and made his first-ever donation. “I provided $36 to the Federation to for resettlement of refugees,” he said. “My father solicited me for that.”

Ross recalls the lives of all the Born family revolving around the valley’s Jewish community. He said the JCC was “where the Jewish community spent its time,” himself too. When he wasn’t there, he was at Temple Beth El, the family’s synagogue, where father and son were both in the choir. “Friday nights,” he said, “we went up in the loft there and sang.”

That legacy of community involvement continued. Over the years, Ross and Wendy have held various leadership roles in the Jewish community and beyond. “I think I’m on 24 different boards,” Ross said. He’s currently honorary president of the Jewish Federation.

Wendy has been even more active. She’s a past president of three of the valley’s Jewish agencies: the Federation, Jewish Family Service and JCC. She also has been on the board of Congregation Keneseth Israel. She’s currently an honorary vice president for the Federation.

Ross and Wendy’s two daughters and their families inherited the Born commitment to volunteering. Their daughter Dr. Lisa Ellis lives in the valley and is a member of the Federation’s Maimonides Society of healthcare professionals. Her husband, Andy, is on the JFS board.   Their son, Ross said, is involved in BBYO and “cares a lot about being a Jew.” Their daughter is now preparing for her bat mitzvah. “She’s very engaged in doing ‘Jewish stuff,’” Ross said.

Their other daughter, Amy, lives with her husband and two kids in the Boston area. Her day job is in organizational psychology and organizational development. “She’s one of the leading human resources people in the country,” Ross said.

Then there’s her volunteer work. “She epitomizes the engaged Jew,” Ross continued. “She’s a leader, on the Holocaust Museum and other boards. She’s on a really interesting board, Keshet. It’s the Jewish LGBTQ+. She’s the only straight person.”

Looking back through the past and forward to the future, Ross gives his father a lot of credit for the family’s continuing role in the Jewish community. “My dad had a lot of influence,” he said. “There’s the perfect example of one generation to another to another.”