Evanston resident Ben Gaines turned 100 on Dec. 10.
I have known Ben since I was a little girl and was ecstatic at the opportunity to interview him on his momentous birthday. When I went to talk with him on the eve of his party, I was prepared with many questions about his long life and his connections to Evanston. What I didn’t expect was for Ben to ask me the majority of questions and to have most of mine remain unanswered, or even unasked.
One of the questions I was able to squeeze in was Ben’s secret to longevity. His answer wasn’t what I expected. “I love myself,” he declared. “You probably think that’s a weird answer.” Gaines said his late wife, Lydia, had been taken aback by his response too. She once asked him if he loved her. “I told her I can’t love you unless I love myself,” but of course he loved her. The two were happily married for 62 years until her death in 2008. Lydia Gaines was a smart woman and soon understood her husband’s response. “She looked at me and she said, ‘That makes a lot of sense,’” he recalled.
Benjamin Franklin Gaines was born in 1922 in segregated Dixon, Kentucky. After finishing grammar school, Gaines’ mother sent him to live with his aunt in Evansville, Indiana, to attend high school. “There was a high school in Dixon, but it was a white high school, so I couldn’t go there,” he said. “ I had to go to Evansville to go to an all-colored high school.” Ben met Lydia at a church in Evansville and the two were married in 1946.
It was during his post as a Pullman porter that Ben and his wife moved to Chicago. They soon relocated to Evanston and built a house here in 1959. He still lives in that house, along with his son Ben Jr. His son Michael lives on the Hawaiian island of Maui and made the trip home in honor of his dad’s birthday.
When asked why the Gaines family chose Evanston, Gaines said he deferred to his wife’s decision-making. “Because of the schools,” he said. “My wife was a teacher and she wanted the boys to have a good education.” Michael and Bennie attended Dewey Elementary School, Skiles Middle School (now King Literary & Fine Arts school) and ETHS.
Following his time with the railroad, Ben worked for a time in the shipping room for the Encyclopedia Americana. “I’ll never forget it,” he said. “Michael and Bennie would come down to 333 N. Michigan Ave. and jump up on the boxes.”
Around 1960, Ben became a postal carrier based at the Evanston Post Office, and it was in this capacity where my incredibly fond memories of him were formed. Ben was our mailman for as long as I can remember, and spending time with him was a highlight of my day as a young child. He worked for the Postal Service for 28 years.
Ben’s pushcart mail bag was such a welcome sight as he made his way toward our house. He always let me assist him, allowing me to push the cart full of rubber bands wrapped around the handle and brimming with bundles of mail and packages. He’d gather up the neighbors’ mail and let me put it in their mailboxes. The feeling of importance I experienced getting to help Ben was immense. It felt like quite a privilege to actually help Ben and be part of his day.
Additionally, Ben would frequently eat lunch with me, either in our house, or while we made our way down the street. With Ben as a lunch guest, it was as if a celebrity was in our kitchen. His laughter filled the house and I assume our open-faced baloney sandwiches or peanut butter and jelly filled his belly.
Ben was, and still is, incredibly friendly, abundantly optimistic, light-hearted, a good laugher and a constant question-asker. As mentioned, I was there to interview him about his long life but he asked me so many questions about people from the old neighborhood and my family, I was only able to get two of my own questions answered in full.
During our interview, his sons Michael and Bennie were there and helped to fill in details about Ben’s life and to tell stories about their dad. Bennie laughed as he recalled their antics as teens. They used to try and find their dad while he was working “because we needed money!” Bennie said. “Whenever we needed money, we knew his route. We would search his route in the car and search him down in order to get him. Sometimes we couldn’t find him because he’d be in someone’s house. And he’d hide the cart!”
As far as answering one of my two actual questions, Ben had this to say about a life well-lived: “I don’t hate people,” he said. “I don’t have hatred in my heart, it’s just wasted energy. I try to be nice to everybody.” I’m sure this aspect of Ben’s personality is well-known to the 85 guests who came from around the country to celebrate with him at his milestone birthday party.
When asked what he loved about Evanston, he gave a thoughtful reply. “It’s a quiet, quaint town. For the most part, people are nice,” he said. “I might have made them nice,” he added reflectively. That Ben made people nice is essential to who he is. His goodness and generosity have undoubtedly had a positive effect on many, even to those who were less than courteous to him or grateful for his kindness. “You’re going to have some jerks everywhere, but most people here are nice,” he concluded.
Ben and I reminisced about former neighbors of ours and the somewhat crazy stories we each remember about certain people. Ben’s ability to recall is amazing and puts mine to shame. As we talked, he rattled off the names of families up and down several blocks of my old neighborhood, who lived there some 50 years ago. I struggled to write as fast as I could while he named neighbor after neighbor.
I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to spend time with Ben and reignite the feeling of love and acceptance I felt as a child. I wanted to celebrate his life and brought him a bottle of champagne as a birthday gift. “I hope I’m not offending you by bringing you alcohol,” I said as I handed it to him. “Offend me?” he said. “I drink like a fish!”
Cheers Ben, and happy 100th birthday! I wish you many more happy returns.