The passion behind our favorite places, and the story of a great man named Brooks Gremmels

Brooks Gremmels_August 2013

Brooks Gremmels at The Forge, August 2013. One of my favorite portraits ever.

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.”

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The center of downtown Ben Wheeler, post revitalization.

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.

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Ben Wheeler’s annual Fish Fry which takes place in one of the town’s many renovated spaces.

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.

IMG_0171 - Ben Wheeler, Texas

Happy yoga participants in the library/community center.

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.

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A quiet moment after another successful concert in Ben Wheeler.

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.

Brooks and Reese Gremmels - Ben Wheeler, Texas

Brooks and his wife Reese caught in one of their typically playful moments.

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.

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Part of Brooks’ amazing team.

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?

  • If you would like to read more about Ben Wheeler’s story, my entry about my summer experience can be found here.
  • Another article written about Brooks and Ben Wheeler.
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11 responses to “The passion behind our favorite places, and the story of a great man named Brooks Gremmels

  1. Thank you for this beautiful article about my Daddy who worked tirelessly to put others first making the world a better place to be everyday he was in it. My life will never be the same. Amy Hafele

    • Thank you Amy. I have heard so much about you and I hoped to “meet” you under better circumstances. He was an amazing man, and his legacy will always live, especially since he was blessed with a daughter like you. Please know my thoughts are with you and your family. Big hugs. I look forward to meeting you in person someday soon. 🙂

  2. I have lived here for 30 years. Once one of our neighbors told us not to tell people we live in Ben Wheeler because it was embarrassing. I didn’t really know Mr. Gremmels, but once we spent time with friends at Moore’s Store (which we remember was a real store-another story for another time) and he was picking up dirty dishes from all the tables. Thanks for turning a dying town around!

  3. No matter what your faith, we are all witness, if we are aware, to the Great Creator sending His light and love through the hearts of those that are simply and intrinsically blessed with the gift of it, and also for the gift of radiating it outward and into the hearts of others. ~ You know it when you first come into contact with it. It’s real. It’s certain. There is no ulterior motive. No clandestine purpose. One can see it -feel it – in the eyes of the picture above. ~ The common thread that runs through the fabric of each of our lives is the love that our hearts and souls are born with, but that we sometimes break away from. ~ Brooks was able to weave that thread back into the lives of so many that had lost track of it along the way. He has the uncanny ability to reveal purpose and to excavate buried worth. To gently allow tolerance and compassion to bleed over by example, where it may not have lived before. ~ Ben Wheeler was simply one outlet for an overabundance of the God given goodwill that Brooks Gremmels was the ambassador for. One could experience the same from one of his gentle pats on the back, or of a genuine, heartfelt inquiry as to how you might be doing of an ordinary day. ~ Anyone that came into contact with the love that emanated from Brooks Gremmels was as blessed as a person can be in this realm. ~ Yes. It IS contagious, and WILL carry on. Brooks’ spirit is, without question, here with us all, and from here on out. ~ We can gracefully thank God for letting us borrow him for just a spell.

  4. Lots of hearts and points to ponder on this beautifully presented post of yours. I gasped when I got to when he died, but then I felt relieved when the community paid homage to the un-ending, legendary gifts he left to that place. A very outstanding read!
    Although for me, I tend to visit the place first because I want to see place in a clean slate and with fresh perspective. The history, significance, and background stories come later.

    • Yes, I hear you! And sometimes I’m just too lazy to read up on everything. But when I do I am always glad I did. 🙂 Thanks so much for your thoughts, it wasn’t an easy post to write…

  5. Pingback: Gracefully Global got a Makeover | Gracefully Global Blog·

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