Reflections with Grampa RAGBRAI: The Old Wagon Master

Don BensonBy John Karras (Grampa RAGBRAI)

This is the time of year I invariably find myself thinking about the late Don Benson, who served as RAGBRAI’s director from 1973, the ride’s first year, for 19 years, through 1991.

Benson was the Register’s director of special events when the ride began. He and I had known each other only in passing up to then.

I had him marked as something of a character out of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street: A somewhat superficial glad-hander (he wore leisure suits). I got to know him, instead, as someone fronting that persona, but thoughtful and very smart in private.

I, as I recall, was a recovering non-conformist and a wannabe intellectual who had never quite made it. 

Strangely, we got along surprisingly well, I think because we shared a dedication to doing our jobs as well as we could. There also was a lot of good humor.

I remember a day, driving somewhere endlessly through endless central Iowa when the subject came up of a recently approved law requiring refundable deposits on soft drink and beer bottles and cans. Along the way, we saw several people, old and young, patrolling ditches for refundables.

“Johnnie,” Benson said [he always called me “Johnnie”], “would you call that ditch-ing or can-ing?”

As for RAGBRAI, over the years Don Kaul and I kept ‘em laughing while Benson kept the whole thing going. He was a master of organization and detail.

That first year was simply chaotic. None of us had any idea of what we were doing, but somehow we got through it without major disaster. When we got back to the office, however, we found a sack of mail from around the state asking us to do it again but at a time when students and teachers could participate.

So the one-time Great Six-Day Bicycle Ride Across Iowa was extended for one more year, and Benson took over. He did several things in preparation, such as getting the State Patrol and an ambulance service involved, lining up helpers to post route signs and hiring trucks to haul baggage.

Each year thereafter, Benson and I met in December to plan the next year’s route. Then we’d set out early in January on I-35 to where the RAGBRAI route crossed it and head west to the starting town. There we’d meet, usually with Chamber of Commerce types, get the local folks signed on, then head back east, stopping for the same routine in each of the overnight towns. It always took a week.

On most of these trips, we’d get into an overnight town where Benson would drive around and around the downtown area silently, not saying a word.

On one such occasion, I finally could take it no longer and asked, “What are you looking for, Don?” and he snapped back, “Don’t bug me, Johnnie, don’t bug me.”

After Benson retired from the ride, Jim Green took over until 2001, followed by the current director, T.J. Juskiewicz. Both have performed admirably, adding in turn to the tradition that Benson established.

Benson died in May, 2011, of pancreatic cancer. I’ve never missed anyone else as much as I’ve missed him.

I loved the guy. 

 

John Karras is the co-founder of RAGBRAI.   He loves to stay involved with his creation and will pop in from time to time to share some of his great memories of the ride with “Reflections from Grampa RAGBRAI”. John and his wife Ann plan to be along for the fun of RAGBRAI XLII this summer.

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