Meeting Lester Bennett
Ken Bradford | Friday, January 29, 2016
I was on the edge of middle age when my writing career plopped into the toilet.
Looking back now, I recognize it was mainly my fault. I had enjoyed too much success early. At age 22, I was the youngest managing editor of a daily newspaper in my state. Over the next two decades, at larger papers, I had shaken hands with a U.S. president, covered a murder trial that received national attention and seen Brett Favre naked in a locker room after a Packers victory at Soldier Field in Chicago.
I had reorganized laggard departments in the newsroom. I had won awards, earned promotions and received annual bonuses.
I didn’t adjust well when there was a regime change at my newspaper and the new bosses didn’t seem to care whether I worked hard or not. Maybe I was in the way of progress. Maybe I was a reminder of how things had been when newspapers were profitable and essential to our community. Maybe I just became bad at my job.
It’s not my place to say. But, for whatever reason, I found myself on the company’s margins, and that’s how I met Lester Bennett.
By the time I found Lester, he had already talked with four editors at the paper. Each one of them had brushed him off. In their view, he had no story to tell. One of those editors finally tossed a phone number my way, with a smirk, saying it sounded like something I might want to do.
Lester was home when I called. He started to tell me what he had told all those editors. I listened a bit, told him I would rather hear his story in person and arranged to come to his house on the east side of South Bend.
His story, in a nutshell, was this: While digging in his garden in the backyard, he had uncovered some amazing stones that might prove the people who lived in ancient Egypt actually had settled in America first. Specifically, he said, they lived in his backyard.
I didn’t know exactly what to expect at Lester’s house. When I got there, I found that Lester was a stooped-over older man with crazy Albert Einstein hair. His gray pants were caked at the knees with dirt the color of dead squirrels. He shook my hand gently with fingers that seemed lifeless and swollen.
We stood at first in the shade of his porch as he gave me the bare-bones history of his life. He had grown up in this very neighborhood. He remembered walking to grade school past an old quarry that has since been filled with dirt and populated with small houses. He had met his wife at a church dance. As I recall, they never had children of their own. He wished I could meet her but she had died six or seven months earlier, having been bedridden for the last 10 years of her life.
After she died, he began to dig a garden in the backyard, mainly for something to do. The ground there was hard with dense black soil. It was a long project because he could only dig a little at a time. Once he cut through the black stuff, he had found a reddish-gray lower layer that contained a wide variety of small stones.
Each time his shovel moved through the subsoil, more pebbles came to the surface. At first, he just piled them alongside the trench where he intended to plant potatoes. But one of the stones caught his eye. Something made him stop his digging so he could give the stones a closer look.
At that point in his story-telling, Lester reached into his jacket pocket. He brought out a handkerchief, which he unwrapped to reveal some soft tissue paper. He then used a fingernail to peel back the tissue to show me the stones he had found.
First, he gave me his magic black stone. It was smooth, the size of a prune. In all his digging, he had found no other stone in the garden like it. I was the first person, other than him, to hold it. “Feel it?” he asked. “No matter how long you hold it, it stays cold. It can’t get warm.”
He was right. On this warm day, it was a cold stone.
He had four or five other stones in his little packet. A couple were about the size of postage stamps. They had unusual ridges on them. Lester pulled out small magnifying glass so I could get a better look. “Those are letters,” he said. “I can’t read them because I don’t know their language.”
His largest stone, about the size of a baseball card, had an intricate pattern of grooves. He turned it 90 degrees because I was looking at it wrong. “Doesn’t that look like a group of dancing girls?” he asked. “I think it’s a piece off of something a lot bigger. I would like to find someone to help me dig it up.”
I looked at the dancing-girl stone and I looked at Lester with his wild Einstein hair, and I remembered Joe Evans and these words: “Ubi amor ibi oculus.”
It’s a Latin phrase that I had read on the blackboard of a philosophy classroom in O’Shaughnessy Hall during a semester of my junior year at Notre Dame. As I recall, Professor Joe Evans wrote those words anew each time I attended his class.
It was the mid-1970s and I was majoring in American Studies. I had outstanding professors who taught me about the yearnings that tie together Daniel Boone looking across a mountain ridge, Huckleberry Finn gazing downriver and Jay Gatsby staring at the green light at the end of Daisy’s pier. As I get older, thanks to them, I also know, even better, my connection to Rabbit Angstrom and J. Alfred Prufrock.
There were legendary professors on the campus then. Joe Evans was said to be among them. I had seen him on benches outside O’Shag, an odd-looking fellow with a dull brown suit and a red bowtie. He always was alone, seemingly deep in thought. I signed up for one of his classes.
I had a habit in those days of writing in my notebook everything, no matter how trivial, a professor wrote on his blackboard. On the first day of class, Professor Evans wrote “ubi amor ibi oculus” on the board. He elaborately spoke each word, followed by the English translation — “to love is to see and,” with a long pause, “to see is to love.”
He did that in every class, three mornings a week for the entire semester. He then would speak extemporaneously about writers like Jacques Maritain and Thomas Aquinas as if they were neighbors of his. By the end of the first week, I stopped taking notes. He would do his “ubi amor” bit and I would be thinking, “Got it, Joe. Thanks again.” This was going to be the easiest final exam ever.
I never missed a class, but I felt like I wasn’t learning a thing. “Ubi amor ibi oculus.” The only thing it meant to me was I was getting my three credits toward graduation. But then, at his final lecture of the semester, he said all the same things he had been saying three days a week. This time, I couldn’t move my pen fast enough to record the insights I was receiving. I don’t know how he did it and I can’t explain it, but it was as if he had hammered a seed into my heart.
I am not a Notre Dame zealot. I value the education I received there 40 years ago. But my older brothers learned equally well at Purdue and Michigan State, my son and daughter at Ball State, my golf buddies at Indiana University. You don’t become a better accountant just because you took your classes at Notre Dame instead of Bloomington. Numbers are numbers, no matter where you go.
But I do think a lot of us at that place and in that time, if we were lucky, ended up in a classroom where we didn’t think we belonged and we learned something that wasn’t on the blackboard.
We moved on with our lives with some of those heart seedlings, whether they came from a snippet of Scripture, a chance comment from a university legend like Father Hesburgh or from a final lecture by Professor Evans. They remind us there are moments when we can stop measuring our lives by our awards and promotions and bonuses.
For much of my life, like everyone else, I’ve survived on glances. You can’t look for insight every time a traffic light flashes from green to yellow or when you’re assembling your W2s for your 1040. We are in hurry-up mode. We look and we judge and we react. We finish and move.
For whatever reason, I didn’t do that with Lester Bennett. Maybe it was because of Joe Evans or maybe because I knew something of Lester’s loneliness. One of my best friends had just gone through a liver transplant and died. My father was fighting a losing battle with colon cancer. I think I understood why Lester went out one day and started digging a garden.
I ended up writing a story different from the one he expected. It wasn’t about amazing stones, Egypt or dancing girls. It was more about a man approaching the end of his days, hoping there was something splendid and magical still out there. The story didn’t win any awards. I think it ran on Page D6 in one edition. One of the other editors saw it, liked something about it and ran it on D1 in a different edition. And that was that.
Professor Evans’ lesson, for me, is that we have an opportunity when we run across people like Lester. We can do the usual stoplight glance and decide he is a crazy old fool. Or we can choose to “amor” and “oculus,” to love and see, to see and to love. The reward may be that we understand ourselves better when we get to that same place, with our own Einstein hair.
Our lives should be more than a total of what we’ve done. When our adventures are ending and we’re in our own little garden, we too will yearn for signs that our lives are splendid and magical.
We’ll have to dig there, deeper, and we’ll need someone to help.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.