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Auntie's Awakening
She Overcame Heartbreak and Made a Whole Lot of Dough in Pretzels. Now Anne Beiler Serves Life Lessons to Others in Pennsylvania's Amish Country

By Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 2, 2008

GAP, Pa.

Her name is as familiar and cozy as the hot pretzels and cold lemonade she used to sell. Auntie Anne. So easy to imagine her in an apron, arms open for a hug, rosy cheeks powdery with flour. From Buffalo to Bangkok, Anne Beiler built her fortune, kiosk by kiosk, food court by food court, on a deceptively simple recipe.

But success is not what Auntie Anne is seeking anymore.

Sorrow is what the queen of pretzels can't seem to get enough of now.

Sorrow is what she confronts, accepts, analyzes and collects these days -- a zealous investigator of aching hearts, bagging shell casings from an endless crime scene. Gather enough and it stops hurting. She should know.

"My philosophy is: Life is hard but God is good. Try not to confuse the two," she explains in the conference room of the elegantly converted barn that serves as headquarters of the personal foundation she established after selling Auntie Anne's Pretzels to a distant cousin two years ago. The business she launched as a young housewife at a farmers market 20 years ago is a $293 million international enterprise now with more than 925 locations worldwide. Under her signature Wedgwood blue sign, seaweed-flavored pretzels are sold in Singapore, date pretzels in Saudi Arabia.

At 58, Beiler is a stylish grandmother with a blond shag and a penchant for riding Harleys; a fallen Mennonite in a maroon flowered top with just a tease of black lace at the decolletage. Untethered from the demands of pretzeldom, she is in tell-all mode pending the March release of her autobiography, "Twist of Faith." Hers is not the sunny tale you might expect from a self-made housewife millionaire.

From the very beginning, it turns out, Auntie Anne had her roots in the swallowed pain of her Amish home town, a place called, fittingly enough, Gap. The lives of the Amish and non-Amish "English" intersect nonchalantly in this blink of a town in the shadow of the kitschy tourist corridors of Lancaster County. Here, no one looks twice when horse-drawn buggies trot through the bank's drive-through lane. Behind the Rockwellian facade, though, are some deeply troubled lives with secrets Anne Beiler is only now beginning to discover since being liberated from her own.

Both Anne and her husband, Jonas, were born to Amish parents. Anne's family switched to a slightly less conservative Mennonite church when she was 3 -- "we could have electricity and drive a black car," she explains -- and Jonas made a similar conversion on his own at 16. "I didn't like horses," he shrugs. It was horse power he craved, turning his fascination with engines into a career in custom auto body repair and restoration.

He met Anne at a Mennonite youth group, and they married when she was 19 and Jonas, 21. They joined an evangelical Christian church, became youth pastors and quickly started a family of their own. Life was simple and contained.

In 1975, tragedy struck. Angela was the Beilers' second daughter -- "19 months and 12 days old" on the day she died, her mother recalls, still tearing up 32 years later. The toddler was killed in a farming accident, run over by a tractor. Anne's older sister was driving. The child's death shattered the Beilers, plunging each parent into a private, fathomless grief. "Our seven years of silence" is how Jonas describes it now.

"She thought I was doing okay, and I thought she was doing okay," he recalls. "The truth is, we were both dying inside. What dies inside us while we still live is very tragic."

He remembers finally approaching Anne and delivering a wrenching ultimatum: They needed help, or they wouldn't make it.

Six months after the accident, Anne confided to their pastor that she was on the brink of suicide, that her marriage was crumbling, but her sorrow only seemed to worsen with time. Reluctantly, she agreed to see a counselor with Jonas. "I saw myself as the one being broken," she says.

The experience, as both Anne and Jonas describe it, not only saved their marriage but transformed their lives. Grieving, Anne discovered, "takes hard work. You can't just sit and pray it away." With the fervor of the newly converted, the Beilers began counseling other couples informally through their church, and as word spread, Amish couples began appearing on the Beilers' doorstep. Jonas's parents remained Old Order Amish, and his fluency in the German dialect they speak helped pry loose the hurts buried in a culture traditionally insular and stoic.

"They have trouble with their kids, too -- drunk driving, pregnancy, abortion. People problems cross every line and barrier," Jonas says. "They trusted me. They knew I was not trying to talk them out of being Amish."

Jonas enrolled in classes to become accredited as a pastoral counselor, and fantasized with Anne about opening a free counseling center someday to serve the Amish and Mennonite communities in Lancaster.

"She went to work to support my dream and vision," Jonas says. "She didn't feel she had to; she just wanted to help."

Anne had always been the baker and bread maker among the eight children in her family; waitressing at a truck stop during her teen years had taught her a lot about customer service. She went to work at a food stand at a farmers market and learned how to make the old-fashioned fat, doughy pretzels the Pennsylvania Dutch were known for. When a friend tipped Anne off about vacant booth space at a busier farmers market in the area, she jumped at the chance to run her own stand.

According to company lore, a botched delivery left Auntie Anne with the wrong ingredients one week, prompting the Beilers to improvise in their kitchen at home, inadvertently landing on the recipe that would prove to be their gold mine. (It was Jonas, Anne asserts, who added the mystery ingredient that made all the difference. It's still kept secret.)

With no business experience or venture capital, and just a ninth-grade education, Anne had eight stores and her first franchise after a year. Word-of-mouth was her only advertising. The Beilers were able to open the Family Resource and Counseling Center in Gap in 1992, serving mostly Amish and evangelical Christian clients.

In the early days of Auntie Anne's, the Beilers moved along with some of Anne's siblings to rural East Texas to help their pastor build a church there. The televangelist 1980s were heady, scandalous years in charismatic Christian circles, and seven years into the Texas adventure, allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct tore their new church apart. The Beilers returned to Lancaster County.

One day, Anne nervously approached Jonas. "Honey, you heard about the pastor and the women and the money," she remembers stammering. "Well, I was one of those women."

The very first time she had gone to the pastor's office for help, six months after Angela's death, she recounted, "he seduced me. I was a grieving 26-year-old mother who had just lost her child, with no reason to believe I couldn't trust a pastor, and I felt like I had lost my husband, too, because we couldn't connect anymore. That first day as I left his office, he told me, 'Jonas cannot meet your needs, but I know I can.' "

Even now, she finds it hard to describe the six-year hold the pastor had on her, sometimes referring to it as her abuse, another time as rape, never as an affair or relationship. Anne knew that two of her sisters were under the same terrible spell at the same time. "Jonas and I call him 'The Beast,' " she says. "I would threaten to tell, but he would always say no one's going to believe you, that I couldn't live without him, that I needed him. I was clean for six months before I was able to tell Jonas."

The look in Jonas's eyes was unbearable, she recalls. "I'm really sorry, and I'm a very sorry person," she remembers telling him. And she hurried off to work after confessing. Jonas wasn't there when she got home, but eventually, she heard his little truck in the driveway. He came into the kitchen.

"We just stood there, side by side, not touching, and he said, 'Honey, I don't have a whole lot I want to talk about. I just want you to promise me one thing. . . . I want you to be happy. So promise me you won't leave me in the middle of the night with a note on the dresser. If you need to leave, we'll plan it together. I'll help you pack your bags, help you find a place to live, but you have to take the girls."

It was the last bit that broke through to her, Anne remembers, penetrating her own wall of self-loathing.

"I felt overcome by the fact that he thought I was a good enough mom to take the kids with me," she says, crying hard at the memory.

After she and Jonas complained to the church leadership, the Assemblies of God investigated, verified her account and dismissed the minister, according to George Wood, the church's general superintendent.

The Beiler girls are now grown and mothers themselves. One of them accompanied Anne to her counselor's office not long ago and revealed for the first time that she had been molested as a preteen by the same pastor in Texas. The Beilers immediately consulted a lawyer, intending to prosecute, Anne says, but their daughter finds the memories too painful to relive through the court system.

Publicly baring the scars in her own life felt frightening but somehow necessary, Anne found, and writing the memoir left her surprisingly exhilarated. "I struggled to forgive God, to forgive my husband for not being there for me," she says. "Forgiving the pastor is an ongoing maybe for me. But the hardest one to forgive is me, because I deserve all this bad guilt and shame. I realized if I want to be whole, I've got to forgive Anne Beiler."

Her sense of liberation led her to organize a grassroots support group for women, which she calls Seven Women, Seven Weeks, Seven Stories. Each week, for an hour, Anne gathers with six local women and one takes a turn just "telling her story." The others merely listen. Some are Amish, others not. Most, Anne says, speak of having been raped or sexually abused. When the cycle of stories is complete, they move on with their lives, and Anne gathers another group to absorb more sorrow.

The Beilers still live in Gap, on a lane shared by Jonas's hulking white Hummer and the horse and buggy of the Amish farmers next door. Construction has begun behind the converted office-barn on the Beilers' latest project, the future Family Center of Gap scheduled for completion this spring. Jonas has blueprints for an expanded counseling center, plus day care and elder care facilities, a library, church, gymnasium and cafe. Everything held close, everything contained.

He, too, speaks openly about his private pain. "Anne and I never broke up," he declares with unabashed pride. "I tell couples, 'Look, staying together is much bigger than you think.' I'm going to keep doing the right thing whether I feel like it or not. I felt like walking out on my marriage many times. I've thought about affairs. I've thought about suicide."

They celebrated 39 years of marriage this past autumn, and they speak happily of the retirement that will now allow them to hop on their Harleys and drive across country. There are grandkids to spoil, and a world to heal.

"It was never about the pretzels," Auntie Anne says at last.

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