This past weekend, I learned the sad news of the passing of Ben Lenz, a life-long family friend. Ben was the step-father to my brother’s friend Robert. Ben and his wife Pam (and her children) lived down the street from mine in the small town of Sea Cliff, NY. For many people, Ben was best known as the leader of the North Shore High School Explorers’ Club — for me, he was the first boss I ever had.
Ben Lenz was one of the most quirky, interesting people you could ever meet. No strike that — Ben defined the word eccentric. With his bushy gray curly hair, a cackling laugh, and his endless stories, Ben was a presence. He was very tall (probably over 6 foot 4) and the upper half of his body seemed to lean towards you [edit: according to his family, he wasn’t actually this tall. He just looked that tall to me!]. His gait was marked by a shuffle and a limp. Later in life, he used a cane as a walking stick. He drove a dark yellow VW bus, which he had converted into a camper.
In the mid 80’s, Ben decided to build a garden in his sprawling back yard. This was not just any garden. It was a Japanese inspired garden that was a tribute to his wife Pam. The garden had plants from all over the world, water features, sculptures, windmills and much more. He named the garden “Pam-Ben-monium” – and it was.
Sometime around the 5th or 6th grade, Ben offered me a job helping him with the garden. I’m not sure how this came to pass, but I loved the outdoors and probably was hanging around near the Lenz’s house anyway. He put me to work right away, and boy oh boy did we work. We moved huge rocks, dug dirt, and weeded on our hands and knees for hours under the hot sun. Ben barked out orders, and set the expectation early on that he wouldn’t put up with any complaining. He believed in hard work.
Ben had his own vision for the Pam-Ben-monium garden, but he also solicited my opinion. Without hesitation, he agreed to implement a few of my ideas. As a 10 year old, I welled with pride as I saw the newest waterfall in the garden take shape. For years afterwards, I thought I would become a landscape architect. I still love to garden.
Without fail, we always ate together after we were done with work. We would climb down rickety stairs into the basement, where Ben kept his “emergency pantry.” The shelves were lined with cans and cans of food, and he would choose one for our meal. Then, we would climb the wooden front stairs (even more rickety, the whole staircase leaned towards you) up to the kitchen and ate like we were camping. He asked me questions about school, baseball, and my brothers. And he was genuinely interested in my answers.
I saw Ben Lenz sporadically over the past 20 years, usually at my brother’s house. He remained as eccentric as ever, with stories to tell of his latest hiking expedition or special project he was working on. He always greeted me warmly, with his large hand firmly gripping mine as if to remind me: don’t forget where you came from. The last time I saw him he told a tale of a horse that had escaped from a barn: I don’t remember the details, but I remember his hearty guffaw and deep broad smile.
I didn’t know it then, but Ben Lenz taught me several life and work lessons that I still keep with me everyday:
1) There’s no substitute for hard work
2) Have a vision, but don’t be afraid to implement other people’s ideas
3) There is deep joy to be had by getting your hands dirty with the earth
4) After you work hard, make sure you eat
5) Keep emergency supplies in the basement
6) Eccentric is what makes you memorable
7) Invest in young people: the impact you make will far surpass your expectations
Ben Lenz died on March 4, 2015. As my old friend Ted pointed out, the date of his passing sent one last message: march forth. I think he would have liked that as the epilogue to his life’s story.
Rest in peace, Ben Lenz. May your soul live on in all those you have touched, and may you find endless pandemonium in the great beyond.