candy school nca madison
Students get hands-on experience while taking the resident course in confectionery technology at UW-Madison. Photo from course Facebook page.

There’s just something about candy that seems to make even the fiercest competitors a little sweeter.

Which might help explain why Walt Vink — who spent 26 years with LifeSavers and attended, sent employees to and teaches at what’s affectionately called “Candy School” — says even candy makers who might be fighting for market share usually end up sharing information while taking the resident course in confectionery technology.

It’s been 50 years since the program was started by the National Confectioners Association (NCA), and the school is still teaching everyone from line workers and company owners to technical staff and suppliers what happens when you heat sugar and melt chocolate.

The course was started in the summer of 1962 by Joe von Elbe, at the time a new professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It was von Elbe who drove down to Herb Knechtel’s research and development laboratory in Skokie, Ill. to pick up equipment for the first class.

This week, von Elbe announced his retirement from direct involvement in teaching and guiding the annual course — still held at UW-Madison — during a celebration for the school’s milestone.

The 50th anniversary celebration also included a reunion for former students, a tour of the facilities at Babcock Hall on the Madison campus, and a reception, where the discussion focused on the future of the “Candy School.”

Knechtel Lab’s Pam Gesford —who has worked with Hershey and Jelly Belly, and has taught and sent students to the school — says knowing the science behind the products allows candy makers to adjust and change.

“It’s important for companies to try new products and do more with the people they already have,” Gesford explains. “This kind of general course gives employees a confectionery background. I’ve seen people excel, whether they have a good science background or not much science at all.  

As the confectionery school begins its second half-century, The Confectionery Education Advisory Board — made up of members of all industry organizations (NCA, Retail Confectioners International (RCI), American Association of Candy Technologists (AACT) and PMCA) — will coordinate activities with Richard Hartel, professor of food engineering at University of Wisconsin - Madison. It will also work with industry members, ensuring a collaborative and comprehensive educational program  for interested candy makers, be it  through customized courses or Candy School offerings.

It is expected that the University of Wisconsin will provide venues and assist with a variety of training efforts in the future.  

A fund raising campaign coordinated by the CEAB in support of future equipment needs and a long term “Rainy Day” fund will kick off later this year and assure future Candy School graduates’ contributions to our industry.

For more information about attending Candy School or gift opportunities, contact: Patrick J. Huffman via email at or call him at (717) 920-5941.