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Reflections with Grampa RAGBRAI: The Old Wagon Master



By 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.  Somewhere along the line I dubbed him the Wagon Master, and I think he liked that.

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.

4 Responses on “Reflections with Grampa RAGBRAI: The Old Wagon Master

Chuck Offenburger

May 7, 2014 at 1:52 pm

I’ve just got to add a vignette about the wonderful relationship between Don Benson and John Karras. After Donald Kaul retired from RAGBRAI, I came aboard as co-host with Karras. And I often wound up traveling with them in the Des Moines Register van as we scouted RAGBRAI routes and enjoyed their occasional bickering. Once the two of them were heading down a state highway, with Benson driving and Karras riding shotgun, as always. Benson was going too fast, and an Iowa State Patrol trooper passed going the other way, turned around and chased down the van. As Benson was pulling the company vehicle off the road with the patrol car behind him — red lights flashing — he said to Karras: “Don’t you say anything! Don’t you say a word!” So, when the trooper walked up to the van window and asked to see Benson’s license, Karras immediately blurted, “He’s guilty as hell, officer — I saw the whole thing!”

Sandaltan

May 13, 2014 at 8:13 pm

Classic RAGBRAI memories! Thanks John and Chuck….and of course Benson who laid the foundation so well.

Rein Winter (co-host from Don during the preparation and during the bike rides in the Netherlands)

May 20, 2014 at 12:53 pm

The column John Karras wrote is like I remember things during the preparation of the bike rides Don organized in The Netherlands. During a week we crossed the low lands by the sea following the route Benson figured out at home. AAA had arranged the hotels along the route and all we had to do was checking the dangerous spots along that route.
Once I counted the times Benson said: ”friend we have to make a U-turn (again)”.

The first time me and my wife met the Bensons was in the northern part of Friesland at the Posthoorn hotel in Dokkum. We invited them for a few days later and it turned out that the both of us were working for a newspaper. He in Des Moines, I in Amsterdam. An other thing that turned out was our common interest in fire trucks, railroads and model trains.

I’m proud I’ve known Don as a real good friend and together with the feelings from John he is every day on my mind.

Rein Winter, Almere, The Netherlands

Ann Budde

May 31, 2014 at 10:52 am

I never did the Iowa trip, but others with Don in Europe. He was still the same as described in the eulogy.

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