Dec. 12, Geary County lost one of its leading lights with the death of longtime community member Ben Bennett.
Bennett came to Junction City as a teacher and wrestling coach in 1965. He served multiple terms as a Geary County commissioner, trained multiple champion wrestlers during his time at Junction City High School and would later go on to help found the Kansas Kids’ Wrestling Federation.
Wrestling was a big part of Bennett’s life throughout his career.
Brett Deam, who wrestled under him during his years as a coach, has fond memories of Bennett.
Deam started wrestling as a first-grader. Bennett was a founder of the Junction City Wrestling Club alongside Billy Upham.
Deam was a small child, he recalls, and Bennett was markedly not — he was a heavyweight.
But, he recalls, Bennett found a way to coach him.
“He had a presence about him,” Deam said. “You believed in him — what he was teaching and coaching you.”
Deam recalls him as a rigorous coach, but a good one.
“He was a very good coach — demanding, of course — that’s why we won several state championships,” he said. “He worked with each individual per their strengths, I remember that. I learned an awful lot from him.”
These life lessons were learned not just as a wrestler but as a coach.
Deam currently coaches wrestling and he owes a lot of his current strategy to Bennett.
He remained close with his old coach up until the day of his death as did many of his former wrestlers.
“We called him coach,” he said. “It wasn’t Ben, Mr. Bennett. And some of those for the most part when you saw him, you just called him coach. Because that was the title that he earned from all of us.”
After leaving JCHS, Bennett served with USA Wrestling as its executive director and on its board of directors for many years. He even took part in the 1984 Olympics, serving as the manager for the venue in which the wrestling events took place. He won the title of Kansas Wrestling Coach of the Year multiple times and has been inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Bennett is remembered on a national level, because of his contributions. In an article published on USA Wrestling’s website, www.teamusa.org, both USA Wrestling Executive Director Rich Bender and USA Wrestling-Kansas state chairperson Mike Juby sang his praises.
“We are saddened to hear of Ben Bennett’s untimely passing. Considered by many as one of our organization’s ‘founding fathers,’ Ben Bennett invested in and contributed to USA Wrestling at a very high level. He will be sorely missed, but not forgotten. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Ben’s family and the countless individuals whose lives were impacted by this great man,” Bender said.
“Not only Kansas, but the entire wrestling nation, owes Ben a huge thanks for all the work he did during the critical developmental stages of our organization. He will be missed,” Juby is quoted as saying.
Commissioner Keith Ascher knew Bennett from high school. While he never had Bennett as a history teacher, Ascher had him for study hall his senior year. He recalls playing cards with Bennett in the cafeteria when he didn’t have anything to study — which was often.
After college, Ascher’s wife took a job with Bennett’s wife.
“About four years after high school, we reconnected,” he recalls. “We’d go to to school functions or , holiday get togethers or whatever and so I kept in touch with them.”
When Ascher chose to run for county office and was elected, he won the privilege of working with Bennett in a way he never had before.
Even in that capacity, he said, Bennett served as a mentor.
“Ben has touched so many lives,” Ascher said.
His death hit Ascher hard — it still hasn’t fully sunk in, he said.
“I really admired man,” he said. “The one thing I took away from Mr. Bennett was when we would go to a conference or a seminar or convention and he ran into somebody didn’t know, he introduced himself (he) said, ‘Hi, my name’s Ben Bennett. How do you like me so far?’ and he would even do that if he was speaking in front of a group, that’s how he would introduce himself. And I just thought that was unique. There was probably not a more well rounded person in the community, in my opinion.”
He spent his entire career here, though Bennett himself admitted he hadn’t intended to when he first moved to Junction City in the 1960s. However, he became a tireless advocate for it, according to Ascher.
“He was just so proud of the community and he took great passion in it,” he said. “He wanted to do whatever he could to make things better for whoever — or for the community as a whole.”
Commission Chair Charles Stimatze only knew Bennett for about three years — since Stimatze and Ascher were first elected to the commission.
“He helped Keith and I out learning the ropes a little bit,” he said. “Because he’s got the senior leadership — and a lot of it works — that was a real help to us.”
Florence Whitebread retired as a county commissioner back in 2016, but she spent many years with him as a commissioner.
“He was very congenial,” she said. “We had our differences, but we always ended up shaking hands afterwards anyway.”
Whitebread considered him a friend.
When she came onto the commission, Bennett was already in his third term.
Bennett’s loss came as a surprise to her. Whitebread feels for his family, she said.
“I’m just really shocked and saddened by his death and I just wish Peggy well,” she said.
Because of both his national profile and his work in Geary County, Bennett drew the attention of state legislators.
Rep. Dave Baker (R-Council Grove) remembers that Bennett was welcoming to him when he first began campaigning for office.
“He always went out of his way to make me feel welcome,” he said. “He was the face of Junction City. He was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in Junction City. He was always willing to take time to help me feel comfortable. And anytime I needed if anything in Junction City, said he was always eager to help.”
Rep. Lonnie Clark (R-Junction City) has known Bennet for more than 25 years.
“He’s going to be a huge void for Junction City,” he said. “He’s always been on the streets and around talking to people and of course was on the (county) commission. Just an all around good guy.”
As a legislator, Clark recalls Bennett as a tireless advocate for his community.
“He was always worried about things in Junction City and Geary County, and was a great advocate for this area,” he said. “He was always pushing for something for Junction City.”