There are a small number of experiences in my life that have left a deep and enduring mark on me & helped me be who I am. Singling with the Pitchforks was unquestionably one of those, and not the least for the many valuable “pointers” I learned from Ben – not by far just about music, but about principled living, honor/care/teaching of others, and of COURSE having fun in his own free & sometimes very goofy way that never undercut his sincerity & seriousness at the appropriate times. The stories of his antics on tours with the Pitchforks are too numerous to begin recounting!
Ben stood out as being unusually principled & disciplined … for example, choosing not to eat for ~ a month in order to not participate in a war he didn’t believe in, or foregoing the U.S. news broadcast media when he found coverage of an election too trivializing. His dedication to his students, and to the Pitchforks – over ~33 years! – was an inspiration – not to mention his incredible musical prodigy. Yet despite his impressive musical skill, I recall him being very patient in helping me (quite inexperienced at such a thing) try my hand at arranging a few songs for the ‘Forks.
I particularly remember one discussion with him (in a restaurant or bar @ Georgetown – I still remember!) about leadership, & how the group needed better/more of it at that point. That discussion has stayed with me for many years (more than my brief partial reading of Howard Gardner’s tome on the subject) both in my reflections on what I have & do not have in my own personal leadership skills, but especially for how it helped me recognize how very effective Ben was as a leader, & with such a unique and (as another Pitchfork has remarked) “thoughtful and soft-touch” style.
Once I moved away from Duke, I would catch up with Ben mainly through the occasional email or one of our periodic Pitchforks reunions. It was at one such recent reunion that I learned of his strengthened dedication to others not only in the academic setting, but to those in the Durham community less fortunate in their economic means or educational opportunities, and was all the more impressed with the breadth and depth of his humanity (ALMOST as great as his arm span!). Reading the tributes of others, I am further impressed to see what a strong influence he had on so many people as a mentor & colleague.
It is a privilege to have known Ben, and I still feel his impact in my life one way or the other on many days ... Having started my own family not so long ago, I now am in the habit of singing my boys to sleep each night, very often with one of Ben’s arrangements for the Pitchforks. It seems especially poignant now to see him still giving to those he never even met. I know I am only one of the very many by whom he will be greatly missed.