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Edward Gelsthorpe; helped boost Ocean Spray

Under Mr. Gelsthorpe’s watch, Ocean Spray introduced new products, chiefly a mix of cranberry and apple juices. Under Mr. Gelsthorpe’s watch, Ocean Spray introduced new products, chiefly a mix of cranberry and apple juices. (Ocean Spray Archives)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / September 20, 2009

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Already successful in helping develop and market new products such as roll-on deodorant, Edward Gelsthorpe arrived at Ocean Spray in 1963 when it produced cranberry juice and cranberry sauce, which most homes only served at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“I knew we had to find more uses for our product,’’ he told the Globe a year later, and he instructed his research and development staff to explore the possibilities.

On his watch, Ocean Spray introduced a shelf of new products, chief among them a hybrid mix of cranberry and apple juices that put the company’s wares in households across the country year-round and put Mr. Gelsthorpe on the marketing map nationally. From then on, no matter where he worked, he was affectionately known as “Cranapple Ed’’ for his success turning around Ocean Spray.

Mr. Gelsthorpe, who also held top positions at Bristol-Myers, Colgate-Palmolive, Hunt-Wesson, Gillette, United Brands, and H.P. Hood, fell asleep at his home in East Dennis Sept. 12 and died. He was 88.

“He was passionate and enthusiastic - completely off the Richter scale about everything,’’ said his daughter, Cynthia Gelsthorpe Fish of Boston. “He was a big personality that kind of roared.’’

Born in Philadelphia on Flag Day, Mr. Gelsthorpe grew up in Winchester and in Pleasantville, N.Y., where he met Mary Ann MacLaughlin in high school. His family lacked the money to send him to college, but an aunt paid his way in hope that he would become a minister.

He went to Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and joined the Navy right after graduating, during World War II. Just before shipping out to the Pacific, he married MacLaughlin in February 1943.

After the war, he worked for 13 years at Bristol-Myers, where he became vice president of sales and later vice president of marketing before jumping to Colgate-Palmolive as vice president of its toilet articles division.

Then Ocean Spray beckoned. In the early 1960s, the company was reeling from the publicity generated by a government announcement that a potentially deadly weed killer had been sprayed on some cranberries tested. Just as troublesome to Mr. Gelsthorpe was the company’s limited product line: cranberry sauce and cranberry juice cocktail. He was also keenly aware of the industry’s importance to Cape Cod, an area he loved.

“Cranberries are a relatively small business in terms of agricultural commodities,’’ he told the Globe in 1964, “but it’s a hell of a big business in this little section of the woods, and few people realize it.’’

Mr. Gelsthorpe, the company’s vice president and chief executive officer, proceeded to make Ocean Spray a lot bigger. From increasing exports to introducing products such as cranberry-orange relish, he swiftly built the company.

The 1964 introduction of Cranapple Juice was his biggest success.

“His business nickname forever was ‘Cranapple Ed,’ ’’ his daughter said. “And he loved it. He loved ‘Cranapple Ed.’ ’’

From Ocean Spray, Mr. Gelsthorpe moved to Hunt-Wesson, where his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War and promotion of ethical values in the workplace made him unusual among high-level business executives in those years.

At home, Mr. Gelsthorpe devoured three or four books a week and read several newspapers cover to cover each day.

“Every house we lived in had to have a library, and it was designated as being a library, and was filled with books,’’ his daughter said.

Reading extensively, Mr. Gelsthorpe developed strong opinions that he never shied away from sharing, even if many corporate colleagues preferred to keep a lower profile.

“When I say he roared, I mean this is a person who had opinions and you were never in doubt about how he felt about any matter,’’ his daughter said.

“He had a poster that we grew up looking at that said, ‘Protest the Rising Tide of Conformity.’ He kept it on the wall of every library. That was kind of a mantra for him. He thought it was a great thing not to be like everybody else, and he promoted that.’’

In the early 1970s, Mr. Gelsthorpe joined Gillette as vice president of marketing and was named president and chief executive officer the following year. The fit was never quite right for him or the company, however, and he left about a year and a half.

Briefly, he was executive vice president at United Brands, which had a number of holdings in the food market, but left amid disarray at the company.

His final stop was at H.P. Hood, where he became president in 1975. Mr. Gelsthorpe helped changed that company’s fortunes, too.

“Today, Hood is in the midst of an unusual turnaround,’’ the Globe reported in 1982.

Under Mr. Gelsthorpe’s leadership, the Globe reported, “Hood has transformed itself into a company to be feared, not sneered at. While its image has suffered and its profit line is hardly soaring, Hood has become a company likely to survive the shakeout period ahead in the New England dairy industry.’’

He retired in 1986, but continued to either volunteer his time to, or serve on the boards of, Hamilton College, the Dennis Conservation Trust on Cape Cod, Cape Cod Hospital, the Cape Cod Symphony, and the blueberry company Jasper Wyman & Son in Maine.

“He was one of those guys who retired, and then worked as hard or harder in retirement,’’ his daughter said.

And he kept his interest in current events. The night before he died, Mr. Gelsthorpe and his wife went out to dinner with their daughter.

“He sat down with a lobster roll and a beer and said, ‘Let’s talk about Obama’s speech,’ ’’ his daughter said.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Gelsthorpe leaves three sons, Seth of Medfield, Ted of Needham, and Tom of Cataumet; a sister, Susan Waterhouse Bryan of Chattanooga, Tenn.; and four grandchildren.

A private celebration of Mr. Gelsthorpe’s life for family and friends will be held Oct. 3 at 1 p.m. at the Dennis Yacht Club in East Dennis.

The family will hold a private ceremony to scatter his ashes on Cape Cod Bay.