Michael Kittredge, Yankee Candle founder, dies at 67

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 07-26-2019 12:07 AM

LEVERETT — Michael J. Kittredge II, whose homemade candle as a cash-strapped teenager evolved into an industry giant, has died. He was 67.

Kittredge, founder of the Yankee Candle Co., died Wednesday evening at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston surrounded by family and friends following a brief illness, according to Tim O’Brien, a representative for the family.

A Leverett resident, Kittredge is known for having started Yankee Candle in his family’s South Hadley home in 1969 and fostering it into a global phenomenon.

“He was a special and unique person. He was very creative, very visionary, very passionate,” O’Brien said. “He was a natural leader and inspirer.”

O’Brien said he met Kittredge through the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce in 1989 and started working for him at Yankee Candle in the spring of 1990.

Kittredge’s son, Michael J.“Mick” Kittredge III, said liver failure took his father’s life and that the family learned of the undetermined terminal illness about six days ago. He said his death was unexpected.

Mick Kittredge said he hopes his father will be remembered as the “epitome of the American Dream and rags to riches.”

“(He) wanted to give everybody else everything he didn’t have as a kid growing up. He didn’t get anything but socks for Christmas. He had a tough childhood and really made something out of it,” Kittredge said. “He was great. He was the best father a kid could ask for. It’s hard to capture the essence of him in a few comments.”

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The elder Kittredge, “too broke to buy  his mother a present” for Christmas, melted some childhood crayons on the family stove when he was 16, according to Yankee Candle’s website. A neighbor saw the candle and convinced the teenager to sell the candle to her. Kittredge took the money and purchased enough wax to make two candles — one for his mother, and one to sell.

He soon opened a small retail shop with his father’s help, moving into an old Holyoke paper mill in 1973 and opening the famous flagship store in South Deerfield 10 years after that. In 1998, Kittredge sold 90 percent of the scented candle business’s shares to a private New York equity company for $500 million.

He took a break from business after retiring from Yankee Candle. An avid traveler, he took family and friends to visit places in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, Alaska, Australia, and Antarctica.

According to O’Brien, Kittredge was a two-time cancer survivor and became a staunch supporter of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, serving on its board of directors for years. Kittredge also helped create Cooley Dickinson Hospital’s Kittredge Surgery Center, Holyoke Community College’s Kittredge Center, the Kittredge Building at The Bement School in Deerfield, and other philanthropic endeavors. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to any of these organizations. No public calling hours or funeral services are planned at this time.

Cooley Dickinson released a statement calling Kittredge a longtime friend and generous donor to the hospital.

“We are so grateful for both Mike and his family’s support through the years,” Chief Development Officer Diane Dukette said. “Their generosity and commitment to our mission of providing high-quality, compassionate health care has inspired us and so many others. Mike cared about the community and was committed to ensuring that everyone had access to high-quality care locally.

“We are honored that a piece of his legacy remains here at Cooley for our patients and the community we serve,” she said.

According to O’Brien, Kittredge got back into the candle industry in 2010 to help his son launch the Kringle Candle Co. and its associated Farm Table restaurant in Bernardston. The stove that Kittredge (and, later, his son) used to make their first candles can be seen at Kringle.

In 2012, he suffered a stroke that limited his movement and speech.

Kittredge was predeceased by his parents and an older brother, James Kittredge Jr. He is survived by son Michael, also of Leverett; and two daughters, Kylie Madison and Casey Jean, of Amherst; as well as family in Massachusetts, New York, Florida, Vermont, California and Hawaii.

Kittredge put up a 419-lot collection for auction at Rafael Osona Auctions in Nantucket earlier this month. His son and O’Brien said the auction had been planned long before Kittredge’s brief illness.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.

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