Bennie Lee Gaston, 94, of Athens, Ill., beloved husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, died peacefully at home on February 25, 2021, surrounded by his family.
He was born April 15, 1926 in Charleston, Ill., one of nine children born to Grover William Gaston and Cora Fern (Hoseney) Gaston.
Survivors include his wife, Monique Jeanne-Marie (Gries) Gaston, of Athens; daughters Suzanna (Mike) Ingram of Sidney, Ill.; Claudette (Roger) Schrepfer of Germantown Hills, Ill.; Marie (Greg) Fleck of Springfield, Ill.; and Monica (Jak) Tichenor of Carbondale, Ill.; sons Joseph (Jean) Gaston of Divernon, Ill.; Thomas (Jerri) Gaston of Springfield, Ill.; Mark (Julianne) Gaston of Marietta, Ga.; Daniel (Annie) Gaston of Centerville, Oh.; and John (Joanne) Gaston of Ashland, Ill.; 23 grandchildren and 37 great-grandchildren; brothers James (Joanne) Gaston of Olive Branch, Miss., and Max (Joyce) Gaston of Mesa, Az.; sister-in-law, Jeannette Saniere of Marseille, France; and many nieces and nephews.
He was preceded in death by his daughter, Michelle Gaston; parents, Grover William Gaston and Cora Fern (Hoseney) Gaston; brothers John Gaston, Robert Gaston, Joseph Gaston, and Dean Gaston; sisters Lois Owens and Delores Bell; parents-in-law Louis and Odette (Le Moyne) Gries of Marseille, France; and brother-in-law Michel Gries of Marseille, France.
Ben graduated from Charleston High School in 1944 and worked as a projectionist and audio-visual technician at Charleston Theater Company before joining the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He was a Communications officer, earning the rank of Sergeant, and was stationed in Marseille, France where he met and courted the love of his life, Monique. After the war, they continued their courtship by mail during which time Ben studied and became fluent in French in an effort to win over his future bride and her family. Clearly, it worked because they married on December 26, 1947 in Marseille, France. They settled in central Illinois where they raised ten (yes, ten!) children.
He earned a B.S. in Education and a minor in Library Science from Eastern Illinois State College (now University) in Charleston in 1952 and spent most of his career in education as a French and English teacher at Athens High School, eventually becoming the school district’s librarian before retiring in 1991. He brought his trademark quick wit and zany sense of humor to the classroom, which made difficult material a bit easier to learn, and his innovative teaching style both encouraged and challenged his students. Thanks to Ben, many former students probably still remember the four French nasal sounds!
As if teaching full time while also raising enough kids to field a baseball team wasn’t enough, he also directed high school plays where ad-libbing was encouraged, supervised the student yearbook staff (witty photo captions were a must), drove the school bus, worked at concessions for sporting events, and organized a student crew to paint the school’s gymnasium. Never a quitter, he liked to end most school days by standing in the middle of the gymnasium and attempting to sink a backwards half-court shot, which sometimes made him late for dinner.
Ben was brilliant, wise, quick-witted, energetic, and well read. He was a lifelong learner who wanted to instill that same love of learning in everyone he met. He had a curious mind and devoured books and articles on a wide variety of topics – everything from literature, geography, and astronomy to history, government, and politics. But, he had a particular fondness for literature, from the plays of William Shakespeare to the poems of Robert Frost, and enjoyed quoting lines from favorite literary works through the ages. He was a connoisseur of corny jokes and his penchant for telling bad puns is the stuff of family legend. If you’ve read Richard Lederer’s books Anguished English and Get Thee to a Punnery, you’ve met the delightfully nutty Ben Gaston.
His love for words made him a fierce competitor at Scrabble® and Boggle®, and he was a whiz with jigsaw puzzles and crossword puzzles. He had a talent for photography, which he utilized in his teaching career, and he kept a darkroom at home during the early years of his marriage. He had an enduring fascination with birds, drawing pictures of them as a child, and kept birdfeeders for many years. He marveled at the unique beauty and behaviors of the birds that visited and regaled his family with stories about his (mostly) unsuccessful attempts to thwart the crafty squirrels that took advantage of his generosity.
A diehard Chicago Cubs fan living deep in Cardinals country, he was so overjoyed when his beloved “Cubbies” finally won the World Series in 2016 that he danced a jig and told one of his daughters on the phone that he could finally die a happy man. In retirement, he enjoyed practicing his Jack Nicklaus swing at local golf courses, sometimes bringing kids and grandkids along to join in the fun.
Ben was also a prolific letter writer, sending carefully crafted “Letters to the Editor” to the State Journal-Register in Springfield, the Menard County Review, and the Ashland Patriot. He was unafraid to tackle controversial issues and whether you agreed with him or not, you couldn’t help but respect the formidable intellect and reasoning he applied to his arguments. In fact, Ben’s work was so well regarded that the State Journal-Register profiled him along with other local letter writers in a special publication of the newspaper.
His faith was very important to him. He was a devout Catholic and along with his wife, Monique, was active for many years at Holy Family Catholic Church in Athens and St. John Vianney Church in Sherman.
Of all the things he loved in life, Ben most loved his large family and his beautiful, kind, and patient wife, Monique, who he frequently called the catch of his life. He was so proud of all of his kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids and never missed an opportunity, especially in his later years, to brag about their talents and accomplishments and to encourage them to always do their best, to be persistent, and to laugh often.
Among treasured memories to comfort those left behind are: playing baseball with his children and coaching his sons’ Little League teams, family picnics at New Salem State Park followed by a trip to Dairy Queen for a bag of Dilly bars, the “silver dollar” pancakes he used to make on the weekends, the endless supply of candy he’d buy for his children on visits to the “big city” of Springfield (gumdrops, orange slices, and circus peanuts were popular), fishing for the big one at the Sangamon River and Lake Petersburg, playing croquet in the back yard, picking out constellations at night while contemplating the mysteries of the universe, Sunday drives along the “thrill hills” west of Athens, laughing together at boisterous holiday gatherings and family reunions, assembling impossibly difficult jigsaw puzzles (Monet, anyone?), playing Scrabble®, Boggle®, and Yahtzee® for hours, reading stories and playing games with all the “grands,” watching The Wizard of Oz on repeat, and sipping tea while reading the local newspaper and talking about life.
In recent years, Ben and Monique also loved going on mini-roadtrips around central Illinois with their second oldest daughter, Claudette, and son-in-law, Roger, during which he and his bride shared delightful stories and surprising insights about themselves. What a gift to get new glimpses of your mom and dad not just as parents, but also as human beings!
There are so many memorable moments to share, but even if we made an effort to list them all here, there is simply not enough space to tell all the tales, both poignant and funny, that capture the spirit of the inimitable and irreplaceable Ben Gaston. We hope you have your own memories of him to treasure and share for years to come.
Farewell, dear husband, papa, and grandpa. How much we will miss your voice, your smile, your jokes, your laugh, your love, and your hugs. Until we meet again in our heavenly home, we will hold a place for you at the table and in our hearts.
A private service will be held for family followed by burial with full military rites at Joel Hall Cemetery in Athens. If you would like to virtually attend Ben’s service, you may visit Mott & Henning’s Facebook page where it will be shown live at 11:00 AM on Friday, March 5th.
Memorial contributions may be made to Holy Family Catholic Church, Athens, HSHS St. John’s Hospice in Springfield, and Springfield Right to Life.
Mott & Henning Funeral Home is assisting the family. On-line condolences can be shared at www.mottandhenning.com