The King of Hearts Bids Necco Farewell After 47 Sweet Years

For a week in February, the world beats a path to the door of Walter J. Marshall.

In the past two weeks, he estimates he's done 50 media interviews, appeared on "Good Morning America," "Martha Stewart Living" and was booked for the "Today" show.

But for Marshall, this will be his last hurrah. He's retiring this year from his job at the New England Confectionery Company (NECCO).

Maybe you've even seen the product of his labors: He's the guy who picks the slogans that go on Sweethearts, the little candy conversation hearts.

He's the "King of Hearts."

For 100 years now, NECCO has been churning out the little candy hearts by the truckload--20 million pounds this year alone.

"If you took all of our production for the last 10 years, and stretched it out, it would reach the moon," Marshall says. "The quantity is immense."

The Candy Man

Marshall got his start at the now-defunct W.F. Schrafft's Candy Co. thanks to some family connections. His father was a Boston police officer outside the factory in 1939, when Marshall's older brother needed a job. His father walked in and asked if they had any jobs for his elder son.

In 1953, Walter's brother went in and asked for a job for his brother. Thus began a candy career spanning 53 years.

During the 1950s, he took time off from the candy business to serve in the military and attend Boston College. He did a two-year stint in the Navy band after the Korean War.

"I protected you from all the enemies of our country by playing the drums," he laughs.

Once back at Schrafft, he worked his way up to president of the company, which at the time was the largest candy company in the world. Unfortunately, in the middle of the 1980s, the company's backing collapsed and the factory closed.

"I went in as a inventory control clerk, and I left as the captain of the ship," he recalls. "The only problem was, the ship was the Titanic."

He transferred to NECCO, one of Schrafft's biggest competitors, where he became the vice president for corporate logistics and planning.

"I basically joined the enemy," he recalls.

His arrival at NECCO coincided with a move by the company to update the conversation hearts. And so the King of Hearts was born.

Since Cupid is often busy elsewhere on Valentine's Day, Marshall's role as the King of Hearts has grown into being the quasi-official spokesperson of all-things love. For one last Valentine's Day.

"In June of '53, I walked into the candy factory. In June of 2000, God willing, I'll walk out," he says.

While Marshall will miss the company, leaving won't break his heart. He's going to pursue his hobbies, playing the drums and running in 10-kilometer races.

"I hope to do all the things I've been putting aside," he says. "I'm sure I'll be busy."

He's also not concerned that the hearts will languish without him, even though he hasn't selected an heir to the throne.

"They were around 80 years before me, and they'll be around 80 years after me," Marshall says. "They'll be in good hands."

Making Conversation

The hearts come in two sizes, a half- inch heart with space for two four-letter words, and a 3/4-inch heart with space for two six-letter words.

Some slogans ("Be Mine," "Kiss Me," "Sweet Talk") are traditional. Each year, NECCO adds a couple of slogans to reflect a certain theme.

Last year's theme was songs of the 1960s and '70s, leading to slogans like "Let It Be," "I've Got You Babe" and "My Way."

This year's 12 new hearts celebrate love and the people who spread it, NECCO says. "2000 Hugs," "2000 Kisses," "Romeo" and "Angel" all make their first appearance this year.

A contest in American Girl magazine led to the introduction this year of slogans like "Girl Power," "Got Love" and "Time Out." In a break from tradition, the readers suggested a new heart with a peace symbol stamped on it.

In some ways, the slogans on the hearts are a reflection of Marshall's life.

"[The hearts] are a combination of nostalgia, novelty and romance," he says.

As the times change, so do the hearts.

New technology recently led to the introduction of slogans like "Page Me," "Fax Me," "E-mail Me" and "Be My Icon."

Over the years, his eight grandchildren and four children have helped him pick slogans, while others ("Awesome," "My Way," "You Rule") come from other NECCO employees.

"The main problem we get with submissions [is that] they're too long," the King says.

One of his favorite candies, Marshall says, is the "Marry Me" heart. His own marriage 43 years has taught him something about diplomacy.

"I've always had the last two words in any argument," he says. "Yes, dear."

"Yes, Dear." That's a heart slogan now, too.

Let Me Call You Sweetheart

The story of the hearts, themselves, date back to 1866 when the founder of what eventually became NECCO, Daniel Chase, invented the conversation hearts. The slogans made their first appearance in 1902 and have been selling strong ever since. Before World War I, conversation hearts were made in shapes like postcards, watches, baseballs or horseshoes, and the hearts were embossed with curlicues.

Traditionally, Sweethearts have been available in six different flavors: banana (yellow), orange (orange), lemon (green), grape (purple), cherry (pink) and wintergreen (white). This year, NECCO added a chocolate heart.

"Chocolate's the popular flavor in confections," Marshall says.

This year, NECCO expects to sell 8 billion hearts. That's billion with a "B."

Production begins in March at NECCO's three plants in Wisconsin, Louisiana and here in Cambridge--the largest factory in the world entirely devoted to candy manufacturing. From there, the hearts are stored at a warehouse in Woburn, Mass., until mid-January, when they go on the market.

The entire run, 10 million tons of conversation hearts, will sell out in just six weeks.

The hearts are made almost entirely of sugar, which means they have quite a long shelf life--around five years, Marshall estimates.

While the slogans for next year's hearts have already been chosen and production on them will begin next week, he is sworn to secrecy.

"I could tell you the balance of my bank account before I could tell you the new slogans," the King of Hearts says.