Ben was my freshman counselor when I got to Yale in 1971. He lived across the hall on the fourth floor of Bingham Hall. He was finishing up his doctoral dissertation, “Aim, Decision, Adventure: An Inquiry into Whitehead’s Metaphysics of Creative Purpose.” We hit it off right from the start. I didn’t know that he would become a close family friend who would be at my mother’s 85th birthday party in the spring of 2012.
Ben and I quickly got on friendly terms that fall in 1971, perhaps partly due to our both having Southern background, or the fact that we were both ‘news junkies’ who enjoyed sharing reactions to news events, or because he enjoyed helping me with my French (and English) usage. Almost every evening, we would go together to the Yale Commons (main dining hall), sometimes with my roommates Adrian Sanchez and Douglas Daly or other Bingham residents. After supper Ben and I would go without fail to the Law School and watch the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Ben always followed politics and current events avidly. It was quite entertaining to see his reactions to various news items—he was sort of woefully indulgent towards much of the parade of folly that made up the news. His opinions were sometimes tinged with a bit of sadness over a tragic event, or a hint of scorn for some manipulative, lying politician, but he never expressed malice. He also took an almost childlike delight in unexpected and improbable events—for example, years later he was beside himself with amusement and glee over the exploit of the teenage German pilot Mathias Rust, who penetrated Soviet air defense systems and landed a Cessna next to Red Square in 1987.
In the fall of 1971, Ben was practicing to give a concert of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. He didn't have a piano in his modest two-room dorm suite, so sometimes he would practice on an old beater of an upright piano in the unheated basement of Bingham, wearing his brown corduroy coat and leaning toward or away from the keyboard with an ecstatic expression. He was broadening my musical horizons as we would read the New York Times and listen to albums from his collection of Ravel, Debussy, Scriabin, and various composers, performed by Ruth Laredo, Glenn Gould, Rudolph Serkin, and others.
Ben had a great sense of humor and it was fun to make him laugh. One of the freshman students in Bingham Hall was from Texas, and was studying French, of which Ben was a master. The student spoke French with a pronounced Texas accent. I would crack Ben up by saying with mock seriousness, “Well, I’d better get back to my room and finish reading La Canta-tree-ees Shooo-ooove,” exaggerating the Southern-accented pronunciation. Somewhere in storage I have a copy of the Harbrace College Handbook that Ben had used for years and which he gave me as a part of his never-ending, good-natured attempt to encourage me in the precise, grammatical usage of English. It has the same kind of forceful underlinings and finely scribbled marginalia that he made with a Bic pen in his copy of Whitehead’s Process and Reality while finishing his dissertation.
At his parents’ house in Montgomery, Ben's mother would load him up with food to bring back to New Haven, to help him economize—the less he spent on food, the more he could spend on records. He would make tuna salad and we would eat it on Ritz crackers in his suite sometimes. We drove down to Sam Goody’s record shop in NYC one time and Ben loaded up on records.
Because my parents lived in Chapel Hill and Ben’s in Montgomery, we developed a routine. For the rest of the four years I was in college, we would drive his cars between New Haven and Chapel Hill at the beginning and end of each semester (first a red VW station wagon, later a green Volvo station wagon—a station wagon was needed in order to haul the bulk quantities of tuna, Ritz crackers and other provisions). He would break up the long drive from Connecticut to Alabama by overnighting at my parents' house in Chapel Hill. Ben loved to eat—slowly, somewhat meticulously, being especially fond of classic Southern cooking, such as turnip greens. My mother would always have them for him when he came to my parents' house, as he did dozens of times over the years. He played wonderfully on our baby grand piano to the delight of our family and other guests. Since my brother Bobby graduated from Yale three years after I did, Ben's New Haven-Chapel Hill drives continued another three years, and indeed as long as Ben was at Yale, and Ben's visits (and ours to his concerts and other events) continued after he came to Duke.
Some years later, I met Ben’s parents and spent the night at their home in Montgomery. Ben visited rural Chickasaw County, Miss. in January 1976, where I was living for a while on my grandparents’ farm. He drove over from Montgomery, stayed in their house, and became friends with them, as he had already become friends with my parents, brothers, and other grandmother, and with neighbors in Chapel Hill. It was a special treat for my grandparents to attend my brother Robert’s graduation at Yale in 1978 and stay at Ben's apartment at Berkeley with my parents and me. Ben was the ever-gracious host.
After his visit to my grandparents’ farm, Ben and I drove to his parents’ house in Montgomery and spent the night. His mother served us pig ears; his father showed how he fertilized their backyard pecan tree with potash. Ben’s father was from the Gullah people of the southeastern coast, like Clarence Thomas’s (there the similarity ends). In the Wards’ modest neighborhood, there was a steel mill across the street. Day and night its machinery produced a metallic clanging and a heavy thumping, but the Wards were used to it. Virtually in the shadow of this mill, Ben had added a room onto the house to hold his enormous collection of recordings (LPs).
Ben and I visited western N.C. together in 1976 on a memorable trip. He visited my parents and brother in Europe in 1982 when my dad was teaching in Belgium.
It was always possible to make Ben laugh by constructing (either deliberately or inadvertently) a sentence which started out ok but then rambled and ended with a preposition; or which garbled subject and pronoun agreement; or by alluding to some of the improbable characters who had peopled news events. We brought up names like Mathias Rust, Laszlo Toth, Fanne Fox, and other footnotes to history over the years, infallibly provoking laughter. Never did I bring up such a name, no matter how obscure or fleetingly notorious, which Ben could not instantly identify.
I saw Ben less often after I moved to Russia in 1994, although usually at least once a year, sometimes more. I went with him one night and helped him serve food in downtown Durham and was impressed at how enthusiastically he threw himself into it and how much it meant to him.
When Ben was a graduate student at Yale, the Vietnam war was under way, and Ben was draft-eligible. He was against the war and would not have served in Vietnam. His solution was to fast for a whole month (no solid food at all) prior to his Selective Service physical, thus failing it because he was so emaciated. (Ben was still very skinny when I first knew him.) After flunking his Selective Service physical, he went to the well-known restaurant George and Harry's, and tried to eat, but couldn't. No flight to Canada for Ben if the application of iron-willed self-discipline could solve his draft problem without his having to leave New Haven! Once he took me to George and Harry's, where we had a hearty meal and he pointed out where he had once sat and tried to break his fast.
Ben was a friend of many well-connected and wealthy people, but his heart was in inspiring students with a love of learning, and in serving the homeless people in Durham, not in flattering the powerful. He was a frequent attendee at the Hilton Head, SC Renaissance Weekend gatherings that a wealthy former U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James held at New Year's year after year. Knowing that my parents would really enjoy those events, Ben got them invited. There is a nice photo of my mom beaming with Hillary Clinton, and although Ben was not in the photo, he had in effect orchestrated it.
The last time I saw Ben was at my mother's 85th birthday party in Chapel Hill in April 2012. He was somewhat stooped and using a cane, but upbeat and effervescent. My former Yale professor Bill Ferris was there, and he and Ben and my brother Bobby and I enjoyed reminiscing about the old days at Yale.
Ben had a great influence on me and on many other people, and set a splendid example. We were all very fortunate to have known him.