Ben Sayles, a lifelong Andover resident, died in 2003 at age 81. A self employed landscaper, he was a lifelong member of the Merrimack Valley branch of the NAACP, serving on its membership committee. In his later years Ben -- or “Benny” as he was known by many residents -- was often seen downtown collecting cans for recycling and saying hello to people. He is remembered in a letter to him by his friend Bill Dalton.
Dear Ben,I miss you, not because you were a fixture in town from the 1940s until you died in 2004, but because you were Ben Sayles, a unique, interesting man.
You were one of the first people I remember in my early memories. I was 4 and you were a young man with a landscaping business, and you worked in my parents’ yard.
I looked out the window and you were the first black person I ever saw. On that hot summer day with the windows open, I yelled as loud as I could to my mother who was in another room: “Mommy, why does that man have black hands and face.” I still laugh about how much my mother was embarrassed by me. She said that everyone in the neighborhood heard me yell, including Mr. Sayles. I’m sure you heard me, but there was nothing about you, in all the 55 years I knew you, that caused me to believe that you were upset or embarrassed by a child’s question.
Over the next three or four years, I went outside and watched you work in the yard, and you talked to me and let me help you push the lawnmower. You were easy to like. You worked very hard, and sweat glistened on your face and ran into your clothes. My Dad liked you and was grateful that you could help him. I called you “Mr. Sayles,” and even when you asked to be called “Ben” I couldn’t do it for you were a man for a child to admire.
The neighborhood kids and I knew when you were coming. Loudly you arrived and departed on a most magnificent, shiny motorcycle, a 1944 Harley, and when you arrived the sound of that machine was powerful, deep, and beautiful, and the sound preceded you by half a mile, oftentimes with dogs chasing you after you. When you left, you’d sit on that bike and stomp on the pedal to start it. Sometimes it took three or four stomps, but when it growled into action it made a sound felt in my deepest insides. You looked good riding that machine: a handsome, proud, strong, young man who ran your own business and was captain of your life.
As years passed, your motorcycle was exchanged for a red pickup that you owned for decades. You had a lot of business and that pickup was seen all over town from early morning into the evening, and it was out there every day of the week. I asked you if you ever took time off and you looked at me like I was from another planet, mumbling something about how good it was to work.
One day in the mid-1980s, I was on Essex Street in Lawrence and saw you ahead of me on the sidewalk. What I saw remained with me forever as one of the most gentle moments I ever observed. You were leading your father down the sidewalk; he was obviously blind, and you had him by the hand and were softly talking to him telling him not to be afraid. There was something so sweet and loving about your voice and the way you were holding his hand that made the moment beautiful.
You and my Dad had great respect for each other. For years, you spent summer evenings in front of his pharmacy and often dropped in to talk with him. You realized, just as we in his family did, that when he was busy filling prescriptions he had no interest in idle talk. But in the evenings things quieted down and you two would talk and you never missed an opportunity to ask him to join and support the NAACP. He often laughed to his family about how persistent you were, but it was you, Ben, who told me how easy it was to get Dad to join and you laughed about that.
You must have told me a hundred times, “Bill, your father was a great man.” You knew how good it made me feel to hear you say that.
People who knew you only as the kindhearted man seen downtown might not have known what kind of man you truly were. The price most of us pay for old age is to retreat or retire from activities, generally becoming more irrelevant to all but close family; but that wasn’t your style. When you became too old for your landscaping business you became a picturesque part of downtown. Usually not too far from where my father’s store used to be on the corner of Main and Park Streets, you spent your time talking with people and collecting cans to retrieve the deposit money. I never knew anyone who didn’t like you, but those of us who knew you since you were a young man also had deep respect for you.
I can close my eyes and see you: the proud, strong man stomping life into that Harley and roaring off up the street. Ben, you were a real man, totally your own man, unafraid of the world. You were a great man, and I still miss you.
Bill Dalton writes a weekly column for the Andover Townsman. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Much of the above is taken from a column he wrote just after Ben Sayles died on Dec. 11, 2003.