Wyandotte & Leavenworth

Without sight, Ben Blagg has seen plenty

Updated: 2013-03-19T14:33:09Z

By DONALD BRADLEY

The Kansas City Star

Ben Blagg arrived in the city from a small town in Kansas when he was 5.

The manila envelope he carried into the Kansas State School for the Blind contained his name, contact information for his parents back home in Coffeyville and the opinion of a doctor that little Benny was in all likelihood “retarded.”

Today, Blagg’s voice might be the most-listened-to in Wyandotte County.

He’s the person callers hear on automated phone systems for police, fire, courts and other departments. “If this is an emergency, please hang up and call 911. Otherwise, stay on the line and…”

His daughter’s friends are always saying, “Hey, that guy on the phone sounds just like your dad.”

She likes that.

Blagg used that deep, rich voice for many years in radio. A lot of voice-over work. Now, he tells stories for fun. Words roll off his tongue like movie footage.

A day this week over lunch in his office on the fourth floor of Kansas City, Kan., City Hall, he told about a long-ago errant golf shot. It was too high, too long, too everything, but mainly it wasn’t on a golf course and the ball banged into the fender of a moving Cadillac de Ville.

The driver slammed on the brakes and jumped out. Hot. He yelled that he just bought the car a week earlier. Then he saw Blagg, standing there with a 9-iron and a cute young daughter. He could tell Blagg was blind, and he watched the girl lead him over so he could feel the dent in the fender.

“It got away from me,” Blagg told him. “But I have insurance.”

“No, that’s OK,” the man said, shaking off Blagg’s insistence that he pay.

The two exchanged names and shook hands and the fellow drove off.

“Ray Murphy,” Blagg, 70, said this week with a smile.

He never encountered Ray Murphy again. He knew him for maybe a minute on a busy street corner more than 30 years ago and not only remembers his name but speaks of him today like he’s an old friend.

That won’t surprise anybody who knows Ben Blagg. In his world, Ray Murphy was his friend. He treated him nice. Same with most people since he arrived as that scared kid from Coffeyville.

He doesn’t remember much about his first five years of life, but he knows what might have happened to him if his parents hadn’t made the sacrifice to send him to Kansas City, Kan., for school.

You might say he embraced his opportunity.

After high school graduation, he went to college, even buying a 1955 Oldsmobile to impress girls on campus. He learned guitar. When he was 18, he tried to join the Marines and still doesn’t know why they didn’t take him. He managed to meet Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, would go backstage for concerts and had her home number up until she died recently.

He has skydived, and rode a motorcycle around a Kansas lake, hitting 80 mph, letting off the gas only when his passenger, who had been directing him with his knees, leaned forward and said, “Uh, maybe we ought to slow down some.”

With all those stories, it only makes sense that Blagg’s daughter would be the daytime bartender at Fat Matt’s Vortex, a Strawberry Hill bar in a building that used to be a funeral home and still has the crematorium in the basement.

“Oh, he likes to tell stories, huh?” Kate Blagg asked this week behind the bar. “You picked up on that, did you?”

Then she gave her own take on her father.

“Listen, here’s the thing, my dad would rather crash that motorcycle into a wall than not try to ride it at all.”


As the story goes, not long after leaving Ben at the School for the Blind, his parents, Eugene and Marguerite, sold everything in Coffeyville and moved to Kansas City, Kan., so they could be close.

It was the late 1940s. Eugene was a fine mechanic and went up to the man running a Sinclair service station across the street from the school.

“See those kids over there,” he told the man, pointing toward a playground. “That little one, he’s my boy. And I need a job.”

The man hired him and even arranged for an apartment for the couple.

Ben attended the school 11 years before leaving for Washington High School. He wanted to graduate from a mainstream high school. He then went to Kansas State Teachers College in Emporia.

He didn’t particularly excel academically.

“I liked to party,” he said.

But he learned enough to forge a career in broadcasting, which led him to the NBC affiliate in Topeka, where he took a shine to a production assistant named Julie.

She had grown up in a small town in the Flint Hills.

“I couldn’t see myself getting involved with someone handicapped because I was way too cool for that,” she said this week. “But we did meet on the night of the first moon landing so maybe there was some karma going there.”

Their first date? He didn’t mess around. He took her to a French movie.

They have been happily married 39 years. Just don’t mention anything about a leather coat she’d given him for Christmas that he later left in the Shady Lady lounge on the way home from a Chiefs game.

She’d spent that afternoon at church.

Shhhh.


Dan Verbeck, a reporter for KCUR, goes way back with Blagg.

They worked together at a rundown radio station with holes in the sheetrock and cables strung across the floor.

“But Ben would always put a positive spin on it,” Verbeck said. “Of course, he also told me he’d never seen an unattractive woman.

“Ben has a keen wit, a wonderful sense of humor and I always envied those rich vocal skills that I was not born with.”

After many years in radio, both small and large markets, Blagg took a job for Wyandotte County. Most of his duty is that of a 311 representative, trying to resolve residents’ problems with government. He also helps fellow employees with IT issues.

“He shows up every morning, upbeat and ready to help people,” said Brett Deichler, director of 311 business operations.

“He’s a great guy to have in the office. Of course, he is going to tell you a story.”

Blagg, who also works with services that help the blind in Kansas City, doesn’t know how long he will stay on the job.

“What else would I do?” he asked at Fat Matt’s on Valentine’s Day where he gathered after work with friends and family. “I never developed a hobby I could afford.

“Besides, I want to keep out there, keep up with the people.”

That’s all he’s ever tried to do since hitting town with that manila envelope.

To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to dbradley@kcstar.com.

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