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March 31, 1991
Author: Mitchell Zuckoff, Globe Staff
PETERBOROUGH, N.H. — Rick Chollet left two notes.
“I’m so sorry for being so selfish to do this,” he wrote to his family in a scrawled hand. “Please forgive me, but the thought of going through the torture of living is just too much to bear. I’ll love you forever.”
The second note, less poignant but in the end no less revealing, was written to himself. On a scrap of paper found in his pocket were four words: Jim, Carol, Mutual, Will.
Chollet’s notes begin to tell the story of a man who felt himself a failure despite good health and every outward proof of success. A former president and chairman of the Brookstone Co., he turned a tiny mail-order tool company into a national retailing leader of adult toys for craftsmen and basement tinkerers.
That triumph and others resulted from his uncanny ability to control events, yet he killed himself two weeks ago when, lost in depression, he felt hopelessly out of control.
It is a story of the pressures of business and family, and of the difficulties of living up to one’s own expectations and the expectations of others. And it is a story his family hopes might help people like him, from successful executives to those still striving, before even one more sits in a closed garage with the engine running.
As most of this town already knows, that is how Chollet’s wife, Sue, found him on March 18, sitting in his BMW in her parking spot. What almost no one understands is why.
Richard Chollet (pronounced Sha-LAY) was born Feb. 27, 1942, the first of three sons of Louis and Sylvia Chollet, first-generation Americans who ran a luncheonette that kept them fed but never made them rich.
Growing up in Port Washington, N.Y., a Long Island suburb, Chollet was considered a “golden boy,” short in stature but bolstered by the pedestal on which his family and friends placed him. Bright, handsome and deeply driven to succeed, he lived up to the expectations: He was an Eagle Scout, a good student and editor of the yearbook at the Paul D. Schreiber High School, class of 1960.
Although in retrospect he considered himself a “nerd,” because of his love of nature and the outdoors, Chollet was able to charm his way through youth. He combined a beaming smile and an infectious laugh with a gift for smooth patter; as one of his grade-school teachers told Chollet’s mother, “He could talk his way out of a paper bag.”
But within weeks of leaving home for college, the ground under his feet shifted dramatically. Overmatched in an electrical engineering class at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., (CORRECTION: Because of an editing error, a Page One story in last Sunday’s Globe on former Brookstone president Richard Chollet gave an incorrect location in some editions for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The school is in Troy, N.Y.) Chollet got his first real taste of failure; it conflicted with his carefully crafted self- image, and he responded poorly.
“He’d always been able to cope beautifully with everything that came his way,” his wife of 24 years recalled during an interview at their home. “He thought he was going to flunk, and it scared the hell out of him. He went into a depression. The idea of failing that course was just totally overwhelming.”
As far as he could recall, it was the first time he had been overcome by anxiety and fear. Yet in a pattern he would repeat throughout his life, Chollet remained outwardly cool, always immaculately dressed, always seemingly in control, and always hiding his pain. Even when he was obsessed by doubt, or perhaps especially when he was most afraid, he also might be keeping busy by organizing a fraternity dance.
That, in fact, is how he met his future wife. Susan Rowland was a freshman at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and to the social chairman of Lambda Chi Alpha, a young Rick Chollet, she was an ideal target during party raids at nearby women’s colleges.
At first Sue dated one of his fraternity brothers, but that did not last. “Everybody loved Rick. They still do,” she said. “He was warm and outgoing and chivalrous and gallant.”
Chollet groomed his put-together front, buried his depressions and graduated from RPI with a management engineering degree. But his entrance into the Harvard Business School precipitated a more dangerous crisis of confidence. Biting criticism of his work by upper-level graduate students tore at his psyche.
‘He was a perfectionist,” his wife said. “If he fell short, if he felt he let someone down, that’s what got to him.”
“They cut him down,” she added. “I wondered if he was beginning to think that either he was great and on a pedestal or a piece of crap. There didn’t seem to be a whole lot of gray area for him.”
It went deeper than that. Chollet’s psychiatrist, Dr. Gerald Kraines, told 500 people who gathered for a memorial service: “Rick suffered from a recurring depressive illness. . . . In his depressed state, problems became hopeless obstacles, fears gave way to panic and terror, and his usual enormous abilities to reason and make decisions were crippled.”
But again, most of the people closest to Chollet at Harvard had no notion he was anything other than the confident, supremely organized student he appeared to be.
“My recollection was that he dealt with the pressure better than I did, and better than most people did,” said Charlie Gaillard, Chollet’s closest friend in business school and later his best man.
For five years after graduating from Harvard with a master of business administration degree, Chollet worked at several small companies in Cambridge and Somerville.
Then in 1971, he moved to Peterborough and joined Brookstone, at the time a quirky little mail-order outfit that supplied hard-to-find tools. It was a place to find everything from Welsh miners’ lamps to “brad-squeezers” for fixing glass in picture frames.
In the words of more than a dozen friends and relatives, the next 13 years were the happiest of Chollet’s professional life, filled with pressure and risk but also exhilarating challenges. He was back on a pedestal, calling every employee by name and reveling in his role as “Mr. Brookstone.”
“He didn’t want people to think he was anything less than perfect,” recalled Jeff Temple, Brookstone’s vice president for finance. “It was very important to him that people see him as strong and almost invincible, and therefore he couldn’t share what he was feeling with others.”
First as general manager and then as president of Brookstone, Chollet guided the company as it grew from under $500,000 in annual mail-order sales to $58 million in sales with 40 retail outlets in just over a decade.
When Brookstone founders Pierre and Deland deBeaumont sold out to Quaker Oats Co. in 1980, Chollet remained as Brookstone’s top man. In a 1983 interview published in a Quaker Oats company magazine, Chollet was described as “tanned and relaxed. He looks deceptively casual, makes it all look so easy.”
“It was a wonderful place,” said Jim Adams, Brookstone’s chief financial officer in the 1970s. “We were growing and so was the company. Rick motivated us by the carrot, never the stick. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime person.”
Adams was the “Jim” on Chollet’s second note. The two planned to meet for breakfast at the Peterborough Diner on the morning Chollet killed himself, but Chollet called at the last minute to cancel, leaving Adams as the last person to speak with him. Just moments from taking his life, Chollet gave no hint of trouble.
“He was very calm and just said something had come up that he had to take care of, and that he would get back to me later in the week. And that was it,” Adams recalled. “If you lined up everybody in Peterborough, I would have said he was the last one to even think about doing something like that.”
Chollet revealed nothing more to the second person on his list, “Carol.”
“He called me that morning and said, ‘I’m not going to be in until 1 o’clock.’ Nothing else,” said Carol Giammarino, who met the Chollets by working as Rick’s assistant and later became a friend to Sue and the family.
Although the Brookstone years were fruitful and profitable for Chollet, there were conflicts. Mostly they were at home, where Sue was left to do most of the caring for their two children, Chris, now 21 and a junior at St. John’s College in Maryland, and Becky, 19, a sophomore at Middlebury College in Vermont.
“It was very difficult in those days to criticize him,” his wife said. “He would become angry. It was hard to ask him to slow down and spend more time with us. It was an addiction for him, an addiction to the adoration of the people who worked for him.” In later years, Sue Chollet said, her husband’s most oft-expressed remorse was not spending more time with his children.
“But he said, ‘It almost has to be that way for men like me in business. I don’t know if I could have dealt with the family and the career.”
Chollet’s dependence on corporate success ultimately led him to leave Brookstone in 1984 for a greater challenge, as a top executive in charge of retailing at Quaker Oats in Chicago.
“I guess an inevitable fact of life is that growth, whether personal or professional, never comes without a little pain,” Chollet said in his Brookstone farewell speech. “Right now I’m at a pretty painful stage.”
But it would get worse.
Chollet regretted his decision almost immediately, disliking Chicago and missing the hands-on entrepreneurial spirit that drove him at Brookstone. In less than a year he quit Quaker Oats to return to Peterborough, the idyllic hamlet that Thornton Wilder used as the model for his play about life and death, “Our Town.”
Chollet became president of the Millard Group, a 70-employee consulting firm that manages and supplies mailing lists to other businesses. Soon he also was leading a successful effort to reclaim Brookstone from Quaker Oats through a leveraged buyout, and in 1986 Chollet became chairman of Brookstone’s board of directors.
Over the next few years, Chollet went through peaks and valleys of quietude and depression.
The family moved into one of the area’s most gracious homes, a 200-year-old colonial that was beautifully restored and enlarged. The home sits on 180 wooded acres, satisfying Chollet’s love of the outdoors and allowing him to relive the Eagle Scout days of youth.
Chollet filled his office with mementos, unique tools and books such as “A Passion for Excellence” and “The Art of War.” The rest of the house he filled with pieces of art and, on Saturdays, fresh flowers.
When Chris and Becky left home for college, he jokingly “replaced” them with a pair of llamas, Flash and Blackfoot, who last Thursday were roaming in their pen when a tow truck came to haul away the BMW in which Chollet died. A model of a llama made from flowers was the centerpiece at the memorial service.
At work during those years he displayed his playful side, dressing up as a vampire at Halloween to hand out jelly-filled treats he called “blood muffins,” or asking Giammarino to check out the price of a Ferrari — it was $107,000 — as recently as three weeks ago.
By all accounts, Chollet enjoyed his work at the Millard Group, but he remained troubled by financial problems at Brookstone. Like many 1980s leveraged buyouts, the Brookstone deal could work and the load of debt could be managed only if sales remained constant or rose. When the economy slowed, all retailers felt the pinch.
What was most shocking to many who crowded into Chollet’s memorial service was that he seemed to have gotten past Brookstone’s problems. He oversaw the choice of a new management team and willingly stepped down last year as chairman for a simple seat on the board.
What they did not know was that Chollet had been sinking steadily for several years, sometimes seeking refuge in closets to cry. His depressions intensified in the past few months as he faced decisions about his future with the Millard Group.
“He felt so overwhelmingly responsible about everything,” said Stephen Millard, the company’s founder. “God love him, that’s what made him the success that he was, but it had its drawbacks under the wrong circumstances.”
Chollet often joked about identifying with the businessman in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” who fashioned himself to be a “Master of the Universe.” But as one crisis led to another, it seemed to him that, like Wolfe’s character, he would need to be omnipotent to live up to the expectations he had for himself and to fulfill the responsibilities he felt to others.
“He foresaw changes on the horizon that he felt were inescapable and that might adversely affect people he loved,” Kraines, the psychiatrist, said at the service. “When he felt himself unable to control these changes and therefore unable to protect people from pain, his intense concerns rapidly escalated and he began to slip into a deep depression.”
Kraines had been treating Chollet for several years, using antidepressants including Prozac, a drug that has been criticized by some as a factor in suicide by depressed persons. But Sue Chollet, trained as a psychiatric nurse, is convinced the drug kept her husband from committing suicide even earlier. In fact, she asked him whether he was contemplating suicide 10 days before he took his life. “He denied it very clearly and very strongly in a way that put my mind at ease,” she said.
Those who knew Chollet also point to the relatively rational way he went about killing himself, devoid of the violence that some critics have ascribed to Prozac.
Perhaps the most compelling proof that Chollet knew exactly what he was doing came from the last words on his second note: “Mutual” and “Will.”
Before starting the engine, Chollet called the local Mutual Aid emergency office to say he would be disconnecting his house’s fire and burglar alarms, which ring at the local fire station. He apparently worried that they would be set off by the engine fumes and that someone would stop him.
Then he fished out his will and put it on his desk, not right on top where it would smack his wife in the face, but under a few other papers where it would be easy to find.
“He committed suicide the way he ran his business,” Sue Chollet said. “Everything perfect, everything in order.”
1. Quaker Oats officials give Chollet a performance award in 1983, three years after the company acquired Brookstone.
2. Chollet and son Chris take in sights during a trip to Italy in 1987.
3. Rick Chollet and his family strike a rustic pose for their Christmas 1985 greeting card.
4. Chollet with Flash, one of the family’s pet llamas.
5. The Chollet brothers, (from left) Rick, Gary and Ray, take a breather during a hiking trip last summer.
6. RICK CHOLLET . . . “Too much to bear”
Copyright 1991, 1998 Globe Newspaper Company
Record Number: 03*31*00091255