Unless you live in Helena, Mont., you’re unlikely to have any notion of who Ben Kennedy was. And even if you live in Helena, you may have never knew his name. By Verlyn Klinkenborg at The New York Times.
You might have seen him on the street or in the alleys behind buildings downtown, collecting cans and flattening cardboard boxes for recycling. He probably would have caught your attention if you drifted downwind of him, for, in truth, his scent was high and overripe. His hair was wild, and his mouth had long been going bald of teeth.
Ben Kennedy was a native of Belt, Mont., a few miles east of Great Falls. You could be forgiven for thinking he was homeless, but he died in his subsidized housing in Helena on Dec. 2, just short of his 87th birthday.
On Dec. 16, the anniversary date of his birthday, there was a posthumous celebration of Ben Kennedy’s departed life at the Windbag Saloon. The party — crowded and filled with emotion, according to reports — wasn’t just to commemorate a perplexing local figure. It was to honor the passing of a benefactor.
Ben Kennedy lived on little more than his Social Security. Out of that pittance, he regularly scraped together enough to make sizable donations to a number of charities, including the Nature Conservancy and the Montana Land Reliance, a land trust. His gifts were usually made in cash, in person, after a considerable, and sometimes daunting, search of his pockets, and often in crisp hundred-dollar bills. The surprise, at the Windbag wake, was how many of these gifts he’d made — and how few recipients knew about his other contributions.
There’s surely a lot more to tell about Ben Kennedy, nearly all of it beyond telling now. He was a public figure but a private man, and he kept most of his autobiography quiet. It would be good to know what impelled him to make the gifts he made. But then, it would also be good to know just why his gifts surprise us, why his charity seems so exceptional. Perhaps he saw it as his responsibility, as the sign of a wealth he felt lucky to have — and a duty to share.