Seeking Ben Kennedy: a quest to find a mysterious Montana philanthropist

  • Ben Kennedy

    Bob Kiesling

Ben Kennedy didn't talk a lot. He was never a family man. He liked having a beer or a cup of tea with his soup and seldom got around to bathing. He died essentially alone, a man without means and with few close friends.

He was born in 1922 in rural Belt, Mont., about 100 miles north of Helena, and died in 2009, just short of his 87th birthday. He served in the Army in World War II, and landed in Normandy about two weeks after the D-Day invasion. He stood about 5-foot-7 and was thin to the point of bony. Late in life, his long gray hair sprouted wildly from his head, and his beard grew thick and windblown about his face. His perpetual smile exposed a mouthful of ruined and missing teeth. He wore baggy long-sleeved shirts and polyester pants and shoes with Velcro straps and no socks. In Helena, where he lived for most of his life, he walked or biked virtually everywhere. He scavenged discarded newspapers and aluminum cans for recycling. Most people assumed he was homeless.

But Ben Kennedy left a mark on his adopted city. Every month for decades, he squirreled away money from his Social Security stipend, and gave sporadic handfuls of cash to a few environmental charities he thought mattered.

Nothing, Ben believed, should go to waste.

Sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, Ben Kennedy wandered into the Montana office of The Nature Conservancy near downtown Helena. He stopped by the open door of its director at the time, Bob Kiesling.

Hi, Ben said. What is it you people do?

Who is this old fart asking questions? Bob remembers thinking. Then he recognized Ben as the old guy he had seen walking around town for years, collecting cans in a big plastic bag.

Ben sat down. Bob did all the talking. Ben listened. In fact, he paid rapt attention, Bob says. He didn't ask questions, just said That's good or I like that or That makes sense. He showed a clear understanding of environmental issues; he knew the effects of road building in national forests, and the importance of saving wildlife habitat.

On his way out of the office, Ben dove a hand into a pants pocket and pulled out four crumpled $100 bills. You know, I appreciate what you're doing, and I want to make a contribution to the effort, he said.

No, Ben, Bob said waving him off. Spend this on a meal, for God's sake. Keep it. Don't worry about us.

Ben, however, insisted.

Almost 10 years later, Brian Kahn, now host of the Montana public radio program Home Ground Radio, had a similar encounter. Brian had replaced Bob as director of the The Nature Conservancy office, and he kept his door open, too. One day, Ben asked to come in. Brian answered his questions about the group's work just as Bob had. He found Ben to be shy and self-effacing, soft-spoken but with a raspy voice. He was inquisitive and sharp, and never took his eyes off Brian. His questions weren't broad or detailed, and he seemed less interested in the program than in what Brian revealed about himself. After two or three questions, Brian had the impression that Ben had enough information to decide whether or not he was on the level. Later, when Brian learned that Ben knew Bob and had been giving money to the Conservancy for years, he concluded that Ben had dropped by to size him up as Bob's replacement.

Apparently, he approved. Ben gave Brian $200 in cash.

Brian's office stands just down the street from The Windbag Saloon & Eatery, a restaurant in Helena's downtown outdoor mall. The restaurant was a stopping-off point for Ben. He would stand at one end of the bar or the other and have one short glass of beer with some soup. He never entered the restaurant area. When he finished his beer, he would dump what foam remained into his soup bowl and scrape the bowl clean. He refused offers of a napkin and a coaster. He thought it was a waste of paper.

"You didn't small-talk Ben," says retired accountant Jerry Foley, 64 and a regular at The Windbag. "If you said, 'Hi, how you doing, Ben?' he'd throw it right back: 'Oh, I'm doing OK.' And that was that. You had to know him. And even after two to three years of knowing him, he was still not a big talker."

Ben was 79, about the same age as Jerry's father. He told Jerry he was gay and that he was thrown out of college when administrators found out. He had wanted to be a teacher. He felt, he told Jerry, that he got screwed.

Brian Kahn also knew Ben was gay. He recalls Ben saying only that it was "awkward." And then he'd laugh and smile. Ben would tell Brian that gay people should get an award as the solution to overpopulation. Then he'd laugh, kind of a "tee-hee" laugh. Not loud: A rural old-timer's laugh.

"Bigotry and hatred baffled Ben," Brian says. "Ben found it amusing without being funny. He'd say, 'I don't know how so-called Christians can say such and such.' " Then he'd shake his head and laugh that laugh again.

He was not, however, laughing towards the end of his life. When Brian last visited him in his apartment, Ben was frail and skeletal. He seemed confused and anxious -- standing up restlessly and then lying back down on his sleeping bag. He was worried, Brian thought, wondering whether the human race could survive all the problems facing it and the planet. He seemed pessimistic about the outcome.

In 2009, when Ben and his charitable work were mentioned in The New York Times, his story intrigued me. I had been a social worker before I chose journalism as a career, and had known many people living marginal lives, who, after they died, left surprising amounts of money to organizations that had helped them. I had never, however, known someone like Ben -- someone who gave money to agencies that did not offer him aid or assistance of any kind, and who consequently lived a virtually monastic life.

Why did he do it?

I went to Montana hoping to find out.

I asked his niece, Judith Gedrose, who believed that Ben's war experiences had disturbed him. Her mother, Ben's sister, told her that he changed after the war, but never elaborated despite Judith's questions. Judith tried to get Ben to talk about the war. But when she showed him photographs of France, he refused to look at them.

Her mother didn't like Ben, Judith said. Judith tried to engineer outings with brother and sister, but neither was interested. She never learned what caused the rift. Both her mother and uncle just shrugged when she asked.

Ben was estranged from the rest of his family, too. Judith attributed that to the death of his parents when Ben was still young. His mother died when he was 6, his father when he was 10. Ben's father had provided him and his eight siblings with trust funds, and they lived comfortably through the Depression. As a young man, Ben was clean-shaven and wore pressed shirts. Except for a brother who stayed in Belt to operate a hardware store, the rest of the family left town.

Ben was different, his sister Izzy, 87, said from a Butte nursing home. Not as a child, but when he got older. She didn't say if she was referring to Ben's appearance, or to the fact that he was gay. We grew up and went our separate ways, she said.

Ben never fully explained why he was so devoted to conservation. People who knew that he was gay were intrigued that a man of his generation was fairly comfortable being out of the closet, that he supported gay rights and yet spent what little money he had on environmental causes. "We live on the planet," he told Brian Kahn. "We have to take care of it. It makes sense."

"Ben was a homespun philosopher," Brian says. "He was not interested in the details of political theory. He heard ideas, phrases, tested them against the experiences of his own life and reached conclusions. He had a simple morality."A few months before he died, Ben called Bob and said he felt weak. "Can you check on me?" he asked. Bob came over and brought him some soup. "Eat the soup, Ben," he said. Ben's eyes rolled back in his head and, before Bob could catch him, he fell backwards. "His head hit the floor with a God-awful sound," says Bob. He was twitching. Bob called 911. Ben, he knew, did not want extraordinary measures taken to save him. He had drafted a living will with Bob but never authorized it.

I don't want to be here, Ben told Bob at the hospital.

He returned to his apartment and all but stopped eating.

It wasn't a complete fast until death, Bob says, but over a period of several months it gradually did him in. He was ready to go.

As his health declined, Ben gave Bob a key to his apartment so Bob could look in on him. Bob found Ben dead there on Dec. 2, 2009, lying on his side, half curled up on top of his sleeping bag. At first, Bob thought he was asleep. But when Ben didn't stir, Bob checked his pulse.

Bob stopped talking and we absorbed the silence between us over the phone. Ben remains a mystery to me, and perhaps to Bob as well. I don't know why he chose to live as he did. But I can say he made choices that led me to question my own priorities. I'm no longer in Montana, but his story continues to linger in my mind and give me pause.

After Ben died, Bob cleared his apartment. The other tenants sorted through the few things Ben owned; his sleeping bag, kitchen utensils, clothes, and took what they wanted.

Nothing went to waste.

J. Malcolm Garcia is the author of Khaarijee: A Chronicle of Friendship and War in Kabul (Beacon 2009), and Riding through Katrina with the Red Baron's Ghost (Kindle Edition 2012). His articles have been featured in Best American Travel Writing and Best American Nonrequired Reading.

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