by John Kane|
On Friday, May 19, 2000 Oswego lost one of its most revered citizens, Dick Benjamin, the founder of the Oswego Youth Soccer Program. I was informed of his death by the Sports Editor of the Palladium Times who called to ask me for a reaction to that morning's news. When he realized that I had not yet heard about Dick's death, he broke the news very gently and offered me the opportunity to provide some comments later in the day after I had a chance to recover. After a few seconds thought, it seemed clear to me that a few hours would not reduce the feeling of shock and terrible loss. In a daze, I provided a few responses, but could not effectively express my sense of loss. A week later, it's time to try again.
I first met Dick Benjamin 13 years ago when my oldest son had just finished first grade and had heard from his friends about a wonderful soccer camp offered at the college. Unfortunately, I heard about it a few days after signups had ended. Still, we had just moved into the school district and my son really wanted to try this... So, I stopped by the office in Wilber hall that handled these summer camp registrations. I was told by the receptionist that the deadline had passed, but I could talk to Dick Benjamin who was working at a desk in the back. When I explained the situation to him, his response (one he has given to so many hundreds of other people over the years) was: "sure, he can still register." My first impression was that this very soft-spoken and kind man didn't seem much like a coach. My son's reaction to his camp convinced me that he couldn't have found a better coach anywhere.
That fall, my son joined the youth soccer house league program. It was a very refreshing introduction to youth sports as they should be operated: a youth program dedicated entirely to the interests of the children, and not the competitive tendencies of many parents. At the end of my son's winter season, my son asked me to sign up as an assistant coach for his team. While I had played soccer regularly while growing up and had played on my middle school soccer team, by high school, the closest I came to an organized competitive activity was the high school math team. I tried to say no, but Dick was sitting at the registration table (as always). As usual, he had a coaches sign-up list right next to him at the registration table. It was impossible to say no to someone who had provided such a wonderful opportunity for my son. That season I ended up working as an assistant coach with Tim Kraft. When a board vacancy opened up a few weeks later, Tim convinced me to come to the board meeting. I left the meeting as a member of the soccer board. Within a year, I somehow ended up as vice President of the organization. This gave me an opportunity to work more closely with Dick Benjamin, one of the kindest and nicest people I have ever known.
While I attended many coaching clinics during the years I was coaching my children's teams, the most I ever learned about coaching came from assisting Dick with an indoor travel soccer team he coached several years ago. Of course, I learned dozens of useful soccer drills... but more importantly, I saw a coach who was more interested in his players than in winning. All of the players came away from this experience with substantially improved skills. They also, though, thoroughly enjoyed the experience, without really caring much whether they won or lost. As Dick often said, in 10 years they won't remember whether they won or lost any particular games, but they will remember whether they had fun.
Thousands of children have benefited from Dick's work with soccer (and the other sports he helped to develop in Oswego). Yet, few people realize just how much time, effort, and energy he devoted to these activities. Of course, thousands of people have seen him at soccer registrations, serving as a referee for indoor and outdoor house league games (in fact, he was scheduled to referee soccer games less than a week before his death -- it took torrential rains and the cancellation of the games to keep him away from this task), and setting up and closing up the soccer fields each day. Fewer of us observed how much time he spent laying out the fields, lining the fields, repairing goals, rebuilding the generator, building goals for his kindergarten programs from PVC pipe and lots of cement (and repairing them over and over again when some of the older kids mistook the goals for seats or stairs), filling out paperwork to insure players and reserve playing fields, and putting together teams and schedules for up to 540 players in a season. Throughout the entire time I knew Dick, I was constantly amazed at his energy. Among many memories of Dick's remarkable efforts is a vivid recollection of Dick being the most energetic and alert among us after a small group of board members finished putting together soccer teams at nearly 4:00 am (after an 11-hour session that began at the end of his 8-hour work day).
Dick gave us a few scares over the past few years.... a heart attack, complications associated with appendicitis.... Yet, he always seemed to come back as strong and as energetic as ever. A few weeks after his angioplasty, Dick was back to moving heavy wooden goals across the fields (the soccer board quickly ordered new relatively lightweight soccer goals after this to help keep Dick with us longer!).
During the past two to three years additional work responsibilities reduced my soccer-related activities quite substantially. I, like so many others, knew that if I didn't do something that needed to be done for the soccer program, Dick Benjamin would. During this time, Dick took on (once again) many of the tasks that I had been doing, continued with all of his usual activities, and began a very difficult and time-consuming process of attempting to acquire new soccer fields adjacent to the Oswego middle school fields. Since he had retired, and was only working part-time at the college, it was all too easy to allow Dick to take on far too many activities on behalf of the children of this community.
One of the first times I heard Dick speak was at an end-of-the-season banquet that was held at the Elks club. He spoke then about his dream of building soccer fields so that there would always be a place for the children to play soccer. Over the years, several plans were investigated, but fell through because of concerns over high-intensity power lines, potential toxic wastes, drainage issues, high costs, or other factors. After extensive investigation of a variety of sites, the Oswego Youth Soccer Association provided a purchase offer for the Curtis property that is adjacent to the middle school fields. As Dick noted on numerous occasions and in a wide variety of forums, this site was ideal in that:
Three days before his death, Dick was very pleased to hear the results of the vote on a proposition on the school ballot that provided the soccer program with a right-of-way for entry to the fields. The over two-to-one margin of victory in Minetto (and similar margins of victory in the rest of the school district) was particularly comforting.
I visited Dick in the hospital the day before he left us. At the time, it appeared that he was well on the way to another one of his remarkable recoveries. During that visit, we briefly talked about the field development plan, the vote on the right-of-way proposition, and the support that seemed to be growing for the project. Most of the discussion, though, focused on his questions about how my children were doing. He provided me with updates on his boys and their families. As always, Dick's focus was on the children. His own biological children and grandchildren, and the thousands of children over the years who have adopted him as a father or, in more recent years, a grandfather figure.
A couple of days ago, one of my colleagues noted that while Dick has been a very important public figure in Oswego for decades, he had only heard people say wonderful things about him. When I heard this, it summarized Dick's contribution to this community extremely well, yet I had never even noticed this very remarkable phenomenon. A person who had affected thousands of people in thousands of families over several decades and no one thought badly of him... Of how many people could this be said?
My colleague also noted that he had never heard Dick say anything bad about anyone. Even though his last days were tarnished by repeated public attacks on the soccer field plan that he had long dreamed of, I never once heard him say anything negative about these individuals. Those who are left behind to continue his program have a very difficult act to follow. We owe a great deal to Dick and his family who have so generously shared him with all of us.