The New York Times recently ran an appreciation of a Helena man who, the article admits, you probably never knew, and even if you did, you probably thought he was just a homeless wanderer. But Ben Kennedy wasn't homeless. In fact, before he died on Dec. 2 in his subsidized housing unit, Kennedy was a regular benefactor to numerous local nonprofits, such as the Nature Conservancy and the Montana Land Alliance.
In addition to the Times piece, we received an op-ed from Brian Kahn, a Helena resident who first met Kennedy when he donated $200 — in cash — to the Nature Conservancy, where Kahn worked at the time. Kahn's full remembrance appears below:
CITIZEN BEN KENNEDY
Ben Kennedy died in Helena, Montana on December 2, a few weeks shy of his 87th birthday. Most people in town would not recognize the name. More might recall a small and frail-looking elderly man dressed in hand-me-down clothes, pushing a bicycle or carrying a large sack around Last Chance Gulch. Since we have become accustomed in America to judging human beings by their clothes and possessions, he would have appeared to many to be a homeless derelict.
I first met Ben twenty years ago, when he stood in the doorway of my office at The Nature Conservancy. He spoke softly, with a shy smile, and said he would like to ask me a few questions. The angular face was out of a Tolstoy novel — leathery skin browned by the sun, wrinkled brow, unruly gray hair and a scraggly beard. Wide set eyes. They were keen, actually sparkled, and examined me carefully. It was the face was that of a wizened peasant, or perhaps a leprechaun. Yet because of his clothes, his sock-less ankles, and his gap-toothed smile, I thought perhaps he was mad.
He asked about the Conservancy’s work, what we did and how we did it. After five minutes he rose and reached into his pocket. He pulled out folded bills and handed them to me. Two hundred dollars. “I’d like to make a contribution.”
I tried not to accept, but he was firm. And for the six years I was there, he regularly came to make donations.
Ben lived in a small apartment with almost no furniture, received Social Security, gave almost all of it away to organizations he felt were doing good work. When I met him he still drove a car, giving elderly people rides to wherever they needed to go. He devoted his days to picking up recyclable materials from trash cans, then delivering it to the recycling center. Ben spent almost nothing on himself, his one luxury being a bowl of soup or a beer at the Windbag Saloon.
Over time we became friends and I learned something of his life. Ben was born and raised in Belt, Montana and served in the Army in World War II, landing at Normandy a week after D-Day. He wanted to be a teacher, and had almost gotten his credential from University of Montana Western when the administration learned he was gay, and expelled him. He worked as a bartender for many years.
Ben followed politics closely, thought things through in his own way, often presenting his views with a witty remark, his eyes wrinkled in a smile. He did not trust big government or big business, recognized greed for what it was, and understood the essential corruption of a political system dependent on vast amounts of private money. Ben knew that human civilization depended on conservation of a healthy natural environment, and did his part. He had strong, clear views, but was always interested in hearing another perspective.
Ben was perpetually puzzled by the human tendency toward meanness, cruelty, and bigotry, but was humorous about those prejudiced against him. “I would think they would give us gays an award,” he grinned. “After all, we’re the solution to overpopulation.”
Ben Kennedy was skeptical of religion (“How can anyone claim to know the mind of God?”) but lived his life as close to Christ’s principles as anyone I ever met. He gave of himself to his fellow man; he shared his money, his energy and time, his ever-present goodwill. Ben was also a full citizen as envisioned by the Founders: He had sought education, stayed informed, believed in human equality, was engaged in his community, “pursued Happiness” — and had found it in the way he lived his life.
At a remembrance of his life at the Windbag, a mutual friend told me this: Some years ago Ben walked into an outdoor equipment store which had recently suffered shoplifting by a homeless person. As the salesman eyed him with suspicion, Ben looked around, then asked if he could take a closer look at a wheeled child carrier that was hanging on the wall. It was an expensive model, but the salesman removed it from its perch and watched while Ben looked it over.
“Is that for your grandchild?” the salesman finally asked.
“No, I don’t have any,” said Ben. “But I know someone who could use it.”
Then he pulled out his roll of bills.
Brian Kahn now hosts the award-winning public radio program “Home Ground: Changes and Choices in the American West”. He lives in Helena, Montana.