A note to the community of Ben Wheeler: I am so happy that you are visiting and reading these words…it means so much to me. If you have anything you would like to add, please leave a comment, I would love to hear from you.
What if Gustave Eiffel’s controversial design for the Eiffel Tower had never survived? Or New York’s merchants and landowners had never proposed their idea for Central Park to the city of New York? Going on vacation typically means relaxing, so we often don’t think too hard about the “why” and “if” behind the treasures we find. But without knowing the specific history of our favorite destinations, one thing is for certain: behind every beautiful place and every famous landmark lies a rich and often tumultuous story, and a whole lot of passion.
Sometimes the root of this passion is clear: money. But I’m writing now not of those cases, but of the exceptions. Of the magic that happens when a really special person has a vision – not for their own personal gain, but for a collective gain – and finds the resources they need to preserve or create a special place that goes down in history.
Have you ever been to Colonial Williamsburg? As of 1926, some of the buildings were nearly in ruins. A man named Reverend Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin feared the permanent loss of this invaluable piece of American history, and he found the resources to achieve his vision of restoring the city – mainly from the Rockefeller family – which is now one of the most significant preservations of U.S. colonial heritage.
The existence of Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, arguably the world’s most influential modern art museum, can be greatly attributed to one man named Paul Sachs, who skillfully united the proponents of the museum amongst countless naysayers in the 1930’s, a period when there was very little respect for living artists.
These men are not especially famous. But the output of their passion is world-famous. And there are people who possess similar qualities in our own hometowns, who also remain virtually anonymous to us, but their vision and passion for their city and the people who live in it improves our every day. From the simple touches like the flowers that might adorn the corners of your city’s downtown, or the summer film series in your local park.
Which brings me to my most significant story of passion, my favorite story, and the reason I wrote this article. Over the last ten years, a man named Brooks Gremmels has been transforming the city of Ben Wheeler, TX, a small city about an hour and a half east of Dallas, from a place where people kept trash in their front yards, to an incontestably charming city.
And while the chances that you’ll ever make it to Ben Wheeler are low, the story of Ben Wheeler is something that applies to every one of us, regardless of place and time. Without community, without pride, without vision, there is very little left to a city. In my favorite quote, the words of Mayor Joe Riley of Charleston, South Carolina, eloquently explain the concept, “In a city, every citizen’s heart must sing.”
Brooks never heard Mayor Riley speak, but he got it anyway. He worked tirelessly, and at times for something he couldn’t even quantify. It would actually be easier to write about what Brooks didn’t do to this city, because he did so much. Brooks got rid of the trash in Ben Wheeler. He moved buildings. He lured artists there by offering free rent. He personally wanted a place to have a glass of wine with neighbors in the evening, so, why not put in a restaurant? And then the music came…and a park, and finally a library doubling as a community center that holds yoga and karate classes. And residents of Ben Wheeler that saw each other but once a year were now seeing each other weekly at the Pickin’ Porch, an open mic in a restored open space in the center of town.
The people in and around Ben Wheeler now have a place to go to celebrate birthdays. There are books to borrow for their children. There’s a Christmas parade. These are basic things that we take for granted, but there are many communities, still, who don’t have these basics.
Word got around about Ben Wheeler. Suddenly this place that people used to blink and miss when they drove through on their way somewhere else, became so many things to so many different people: a tourist destination for art, a small retirement community, and a weekend hotspot for music lovers.
Brooks died last Sunday, January 26th, after a bravely fought battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 70. Last Tuesday the community gathered and planted 1,000 daffodil and buttercup bulbs in the center of town in his memory, in front of that restaurant where he so enjoyed meeting his neighbors over a glass of wine, and maybe even dancing on a table later when the music got really good.
Brooks was my real-life Reverend Goodwin and Paul Sachs. He was my hope and faith all rolled into one that there are people in this world with the heart, the intelligence, the imagination, the guts, the talent, and the passion to make the change that should be made.
But I’ve been taking his death hard. I’ve been procrastinating this blog entry, as it almost seems to make his death more real. I have a lingering question weighing heavily on my heart: When someone like Brooks dies – who is so brimming with passion – where does all that passion go? Does it just disappear? I don’t want to believe it.
I take solace in knowing without a moment’s doubt that the secret to his passion is its contagiousness which has definitively spread to Brooks’ amazing team including his wife Reese, Steve, Donley, Jenni, and his family Cary and Richard, and the superb community of Ben Wheeler, who treated me like family when I was there for two weeks last summer.
And when I think a bit harder, right under my nose I find these passionate people in my own community, my personal heroes, like my friend Cheryl, who fights tirelessly for our local library. And my dad, whose work is never done, most notably helping found a major food bank.
I believe the passion is there, and is not lost with the loss of magnificent men like Brooks. I know Ben Wheeler will remain a beautiful community. And life will go on. But, in my search for this passion, I just have one request: the next time you see the flowers on the street corner in your city, or you admire a historical building around the corner, please, take a moment to think…who is behind this?