Did you ever have a tree fall on you? Neither have I, but last Thursday when I heard Ben Jones had passed away in Florida, I think I know what it feels like.
The news came as a shock, even if it was expected when 93- year-old Ben and his wife Betty said goodbye and left for Florida last month (see the Reporter Thursday for a full obituary of Ben).
He was the most unselfish man I’ve ever encountered. Ben was one of those rare people who traveled through much of his life not knowing what it was like to have an enemy. Just mention his name to anyone who knew him and the conversation goes into another gear. Usually starting with, “What a great guy,” or, “Let me tell you what he did for me.” For the years I’ve known him, I will savor countless, delightful memories of a man who truly understood life.
Like many Islanders, I knew about him before I really got to know him. Years ago, I saw him as just a quiet man I’d call Mr. Jones. Once I got to know him, I dropped the mister part. It was easy to note his wonderful sense of humor, caring, competitiveness and kindness all wrapped up in a true gentleman.
Some years ago, I got to know him when I was golf pro at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club and Dr. Frank Adipietro was getting Ben involved in the sport. When I spoke to Dr. Frank after the news of Ben’s death, he spoke first and foremost about his friend’s work as an Emergency Medical Technician.
For the past 30 years of his life Ben volunteered as a year-round EMT here and in Florida. Dr. Frank said Ben never stopped learning about caring for others and, although always in charge, wasn’t interested in administrative duties. He felt that would take him away from helping the hundreds (thousands?) of people he comforted and brought back to health.
It was important for him to get young people involved in Emergency Medical Services work and let them experience the satisfaction of doing something good for others. After getting them involved, he was always available to teach them every technique and method about caring for the sick or those in distress
Ben was one of nine Shelter Island EMT’s who dropped everything and followed the call of duty into the smoke and wreckage of downtown Manhattan on September 11, 2001 to serve in any way they could.
Always active, he loved to go fishing on his boat, mostly alone. He also enjoyed golf and was highly competitive, as he was in everything else in life. He never stopped his quest to improve and would try anything to be just a little better.
Here’s a memory of him — one of many — that I cherish. In golf, putting and chipping were his biggest challenges. Like I said, Ben would try anything to improve, so for putting he ended up using a long, anchored putter. I’ll never forget his unique address position; his right hand would hold the top of the club anchored to his chest and his left hand would be two feet down the shaft.
Although I had never seen anyone putt this way, it made sense to Ben.
When he turned 80, Betty threw him a party at the Yacht Club and I was asked to say a few words. While speaking, knowing his love for golf and improvement, and realizing he was 80, I offered him a gift of free golf lessons for the rest of his life. After that, I couldn’t pass him without being waved over to check his swing.
Last year I said to him, “Ben, what do you think, after all these years maybe we should stop the free lessons?”
He looked at me and with a straight face said, “I would, Bob, but you know that you said it in front of a lot of people.”
All through his 80s he remained strong. He could hit a golf ball as far as anyone his age. But the guys who played with him discovered that weakness in his putting and would never give him a short putt. To everyone else, the putt would be a “gimme” but that would spoil the fun of watching him sweat over that short one.
No group on the golf course was allowed to have three carts in one foursome except for one person: Ben Jones always had to have his own cart in case he had to answer an emergency call.
His gift to the Island’s EMS and ambulance corps is legendary. His commitment to this unit of dedicated voluntary lifesavers is such that a training room at the headquarters is named for Ben.
At 93, Ben was the oldest active paramedic in the USA.
I can testify to his skills. Ten years ago, while eating dinner at Goat Hill, I suddenly couldn’t move a muscle in my body. I must have fainted because I don’t remember being put in an ambulance. I opened my eyes on the North Ferry to see Ben working on my arm, putting in an intravenous line. He did it so well that for the next week in the hospital, it was never changed.
Seeing him made me feel safe because I knew that Ben would not lose his gift of free lessons.
The last time I had a conversation with Ben was at the Old Timers Softball game last summer. Since the inception of the game many years ago, Ben always played. I was stunned when he told me at the game that it didn’t look good for him because he had a trifecta of problems.
As I umpired the game, I continuously looked over to make sure Ben was all right. Then, looking over again, Ben was gone. I was told he was tired and went home. That day was my last sit-down conversation with him.
I’ll miss him.
He was admired by all who knew him. This spring, when he will be honored on the Island, I will be there. I can’t think of a better person to keep in my memory. He lived a good, full life and now he gets his turn to rest.