tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Goodbye to an old friend

My friend Ben Haller died on Monday. He was 88.

Ben sold the Northwestern Banker magazine in 1988 to Paul Blackburn, who merged it with his magazine, Commercial West. Both of the magazines were started a century earlier, Northwestern Banker published out of Des Moines, and Commercial West originating out of Minneapolis. Upon the merger, Blackburn renamed the magazine NorthWestern Financial Review.

I was the editor at the time of the merger. I had competed against Haller and his staff the three years prior, and for the next year or so, I edited columns that he continued to contribute. He was an awesome writer. Nobody had banking industry knowledge like Ben Haller. When he wrote about something that happened in the late 1980s, he could compare it to similar events in the 1950s or the 1960s. Whenever some crisis arose that we all thought meant the end of the banking industry as we knew it, Haller would say the exact same thing took place three or four decades earlier.

I respected Haller because he seemed to know everyone in the industry and everyone seemed to know him. He started working at the Northwestern Banker upon his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1945. He eventually was named editor, then bought into the magazine, and then became the magazine’s sole owner in 1981. There aren’t very many people who stick with the same company for 43 years, as Ben did.

Ben Haller was born in 1919 in Omaha, one of 14 children. I wrote a feature on him when the magazines merged and at that time he told me about his military service. He was training with a company of soldiers, but one afternoon he tore ligaments in his knee playing touch football. The injury was so serious that he couldn’t keep up the pace of his Army training, and he was pulled out of his company and placed in the class behind. Years later, he did some digging around to find out whatever happened to some of his old buddies in that original company and he discovered that nearly everyone in the company was killed in the invasion at Normandy.

Haller had always been a devout Catholic, but this realization really got him to thinking about why God had spared his life. Clearly, he thought, God had something important in mind for him to do with his life.

Haller saw combat in World War II himself, flying 19 combat missions. At one point, his plane was shot down over Yugoslavia. The entire crew was presumed dead. Officials informed Haller’s young bride, Peggy, that he had been killed in action. Months later, the crew was discovered, rescued and Haller turned up in a hospital in Italy.

After the war, Ben and Peggy had five kids and eight grandchildren. They were married for 63 years.

I just returned from Ben’s wake; the funeral is tomorrow morning. Peggy asked about my kids. I said they were fine, adding that four kids sure keep my wife and I busy. Peggy said: “They keep you busy but you know it’s worth it. At times like these, it is obviously worth it.” Her kids and grandkids were among the many people remembering Ben at the Sacred Heart Church Parish Center in West Des Moines.

By the time a colleague and I bought the magazine from Paul Blackburn in 1992, Haller had stopped contributing columns, but we stayed in touch. I would see him annually at the Iowa Bankers Association convention in Des Moines every September. The IBA has a club for people who have worked in the banking industry for 50 years or longer. These “50-year bankers” have a luncheon at the convention, and Ben would always attend. He was so close to the group that they made him an honorary member, the only non-banker ever to be welcomed into the ranks of the 50-year banker group.

I got a little worried last month when I went down for the convention and Ben wasn’t at the luncheon. I had talked to Ben last spring. In fact, I invited him to consider contributing columns again. After taking a couple weeks to think about it, he wrote me a letter saying he’d like to do it, that he would get to work on it right away, and that he would send me the first column as soon as he was done with it. I never received a column.

At the wake, it was noted that he lived the last several months of his life in great pain. I never knew, but I should have guessed. He would have submitted a column or two if he were doing okay; he wouldn’t have missed the 50-year banker lunch if he hadn’t been pretty bad off.

I’m going to miss my friend.

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