It was a wintry January day in 2017 when Geoffrey Mearns first stepped foot on Ball State University's campus.
The then-president of Northern Kentucky University got to experience the atmosphere of Ball State and Muncie a few weeks before he was officially announced as Ball State’s 17th president. He does not remember seeing Beneficence on the trip, but the values the statue stands for made a lasting impact on Mearns and his wife, Jennifer.
“The essence of Beneficence is doing good,” Mearns said. “The values that flow from that simple statement are what I think made this place distinctive and what was particularly attractive to me and Jennifer.”
The morals of Beneficence have motivated Mearns in his presidency, with the creation of the Beneficence Pledge coming in his term, and the “Our Call to Beneficence” podcast beginning in 2021.
Mearns remembers the values that his parents told him and how it impacted his decision to accept the offer to be Ball State's next president.
“I'm one of nine children, and those are the values that my parents sought to instill in us,” Mearns said. “It's my hope that, in addition to the work that I do, that I will have the opportunity to instill those same values in my children and grandchildren. So it's not just a professional aspect of who I am. It's very personal to me as well.”
Mearns’ office in the Bracken Administration Building faces Beneficence, the statue that was unveiled Sept. 26, 1937, as a monument to the Ball brothers’ generosity in donating the land that would soon become the university.
85 years after the dedication, members of the Ball State community reflect on the importance “Benny” has not only for the university, but also for their personal lives.
Time, Talent and Treasure
Ben Yoder said he did not understand the importance of the ideals of Beneficence until after he graduated from Ball State.
When Yoder visited Ball State in high school, he said the tour guides conveyed the message of Beneficence as “the job that we all have of giving back to the community that serves us and to the university that serves us.”
Yoder said during his time as an undergraduate student in the mid-2000s, he often passed by Beneficence while biking and walking, even though he did not have many classes on that side of campus. He not only saw couples kiss at Beneficence, but he’d also seen people be proposed to at Benny.
A famous urban legend that has grown is that if two people kiss at the statue and the wings flap, it is said that it is true love.
Yoder even got his own kiss at Benny once; he claims that he heard the wings flap.
After graduating from Ball State in 2007 with a musical education degree, Yoder recalled how the Alumni Association portrays Beneficence as “time, talent and treasure” and how “we're all part of Beneficence.” Coming out of college, the opportunities he got because of his education allowed him to grasp the meaning of the statue.
“I try to stay involved because I really do believe that I got so much,” Yoder said. “So much was given to me through my time at Ball State University, and so much was provided for me by people I don't even know.”
As he continues his education to get an administrator's license at Ball State, Yoder, who is a former president of the Young Alumni Council and a middle school music teacher at Hamilton Southeastern, looks to continue to instill the values of Beneficence into his students.
“I have knowledge and I have experiences to share with these young people,” Yoder said. “I think that knowledge can help them as they navigate their own lives.”
A Special Day In Front of "Benny"
Kari Gayes did not get proposed to at Beneficence; instead, she got married there.
Gayes met her future husband, Nick, at Ball State via a blind date at a fraternity barn dance in 2001.
“My big sis was like, I have a friend who needs a date to this dance, and several of us are going, do you want to go with us?” Gayes said.
Nick and Kari met for the first time before that dance and then began dating shortly thereafter.
Their relationship ended up taking a more unusual arc than most relationships, Gayes said.
“We dated for a few months, and then we split up,” Gates said. “It was almost four years later that we got back together.”
When the two reconnected a few years later, he was in Phoenix, so the couple spent countless nights talking on the phone. Gayes said many of those nights were spent in front of Beneficence.
When the couple got engaged in spring 2006, they discussed potential venues. With Gayes coming from a small town, she expressed there would not be many potential venues there. She suggested getting married at Beneficence because of the importance Ball State had to their relationship.
At the time of the engagement, she was the secretary of the Student Government Association (SGA), and she was able to get the lawn in front of Beneficence reserved for the wedding ceremony.
“There was the lore about kissing in front of Beneficence,” Gayes said. “It felt like the most iconic option.”
Fifteen years after their marriage on May 12, 2007, Muncie is now home to the Gayes family, and she said it reminds her of the transformative role that Muncie and Ball State has had in her life.
“We still have some anniversary lunches over there,” Gayes said.
Did she hear the wings on Benny flap during her wedding day?
“Nobody reported seeing it,” Gayes said. “I like to tell myself that it happened.”
Community Represented Through Beneficence
Chris Munchel has often told new students that when he kissed his wife underneath Beneficence, the wings flapped so hard that Benny almost flew away then and there.
Munchel, vice president for enrollment planning and management at Ball State, has a personal history with the university. Growing up in Connersville, an hour away from campus, Munchel had family members attend Ball State.
Munchel believes the legacy of Beneficence and the conscience she represents makes the university more unique as a result.
“The community and the appreciation and love of the Ball family, the Ball family's appreciation for the community and their generosity set a tone back in the early 1900s that continues today,” Munchel said.
For Munchel, the essence of Beneficence is evident in everyday actions of the Ball State community.
During orientation one year, he said a student had issues not being able to afford housing for the night, and then the next day, their car broke down. Members of the community came together to pitch in money and time, providing the student with resources until everything was fixed.
“I see it daily,” Munchel said. “We don't always hear about them, but those are consistently happening, and that's what makes this place so special.”
Munchel compared the code of Beneficence to a cycle where students get their education at Ball State, then give back so that other students can get the same quality of education.
“She [Beneficence] represents opportunities,” Munchel said. “I see Ball State is that university that really does have that foundation of community engagement, supporting each other and lifting each other up, so that's where she has meant a lot to me.“
"Let's Go Together"
As a child, Van Ness would do schoolwork with her sister at Beneficence. Van Ness, a third-generation student, was homeschooled nearby in Alexandria. Her grandparents both taught at Ball State: her grandfather in the English department and her grandmother in accounting.
“I had seen what Benny described demonstrated here at Ball State,” Van Ness said. “But I didn't have the name for it.”
On the contrary, Felix Goetschius-Adams is a first-generation college student, and he came from a trades' family. The third-year theater education student from Angola, Indiana, got the recommendation to apply to Ball State from a friend who had recently graduated from the university.
He noted how he felt a little intimidated when he got to see Benny for the first time, but the intimidation gave way to hope and excitement.
“Something about her with her right hand holding out, it’s a message of, ‘I am going to hold my hand out. You take it, and let’s go together,’” Goetschius-Adams said.
Despite their different backgrounds, Van Ness and Goetschius-Adams found a shared path this summer. Both of them were orientation leaders.
Throughout their training, they got to hear the full story of Beneficence for the first time.
For Van Ness, Beneficence represents a set of ideals that she would like to pursue after she graduates.
“It's like people help you in the community,” Van Ness said. “But you also give back. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
Facing the Future
As Benny celebrates 85 years of age, Munchel said that the legacy and influence of Benny will only grow with time.
“It starts with being able to give back [to the community] and then again,” Munchel said. “Take care of your neighbors. Because as we do that as a society, the better the world is going to be.”
Yoder, who is now a member of the Alumni Council and still regularly gives his time and energy to Ball State, said that the university and Benny are inseparable.
“As long as Beneficence [is] what remains at the forefront of discussions about who … or what Ball State University is, then I think we'll be just fine,” Yoder said.
In his office, Geoffery Mearns feels “fortunate” he and Jennifer are at Ball State. He said the values and character of the university align with the values in his family.
For Mearns, it’s about gratitude.
“It's a reminder to me that I should demonstrate my gratitude for having been invited to become a member of that community,” Mearns said. “That it's my responsibility to demonstrate my gratitude through my actions and through my service as the president.”
Contact Grayson Joslin with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GraysonMJoslin.