Those who don’t know Ben Craig may think his request to throw a portion of his ashes in the air along Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park is a bit odd.
But this 87-year-old civic leader, who has cancer and has been given three months to live, has rational reasons for this unusual request. Metcalf Avenue is the spine of Overland Park — and, by extension all of Johnson County — and that is the community that Ben Craig has poured his soul into. Aside from his family, Ben has dedicated himself to this community above all else. And he has left his indelible mark.
Ben came to Overland Park 52 years ago to become president of Metcalf Bank, a small start-up at 79th Street and Metcalf Avenue. It was also in 1964 that Ben joined the Overland Park Rotary Club, where he holds the distinction of perfect attendance over those 52 years.
Ben brings total commitment to everything, which has made him an icon. He has been involved in so many causes and achieved so many awards that a list of them is literally six pages long.
When Metcalf Avenue’s business development stretched only a few blocks south of 75th Street and the county was strictly a bedroom suburb, Ben saw a fertile community that he thought would someday be far more than simply nice homes, shops and outstanding schools. Johnson County has become a commercial hub, thanks in part to Ben.
Economic development is in Ben’s blood. He founded the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce and has led almost every business organization that exists in the county. He is the only Johnson County banker to serve as president of the Kansas Banker’s Association. You might expect that kind of business involvement from a banker. But although Ben built a thriving, sprawling bank empire, he never solicited business from those he served with or from any government. He kept banking and serving in two separate worlds.
Ben’s clear choice for his most significant life achievement is chairing the campaign committee that championed a $12.9 million bond issue to establish Johnson County Community College. The success of that campaign resulted in the community’s crown jewel, ranked as one of the finest in America. But that was just the beginning of Ben’s involvement there.
Ben was the first chairman of the JCCC Foundation, which has raised tens of millions of dollars over the years toward scholarships for those who couldn’t afford full tuition. He has stayed involved with the college. It should come as no surprise that Ben is leaving a large part of his estate to the college scholarship fund.
Ben has been behind the scenes in local politics. He was always on the lookout for good officeholders. Ben mentored hundreds of candidates over the years. Sometimes he raised funds for their campaigns.
Ben’s true joy, which lights up his face, is the Deanna Rose Farmstead in Overland Park. Not only has Ben been a longtime leader of that organization, he generously built a large, all-brick replica of an old-time bank called “Ben’s Bank” for children to learn about banking.
Throughout most of his life, Ben didn’t take the time for hobbies. But in his ’60s, he took up golf, which became a passion. A natural athlete who once played minor league baseball (on the same team as Mickey Mantle), Ben has religiously played twice a week until recently. He finally shot a hole-in-one four years ago.
Ben is a privately spiritual man. As he tells his life story, Ben assigns much of what has happened to him to his creator. He views the last few months of life as a gift, so that he has the time to get things in order and say goodbye to his family and many friends.
So, one day, if you see ashes flying through the air over Metcalf Avenue, that’s Ben. It will be symbolic. The real Ben is in every nook and cranny of the community he has spent his lifetime serving.
Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist: firstname.lastname@example.org.