Benedetto blaise russo...

was known as Benny to his friends.  Put another way, Ben Russo was Benny to everyone he met.

Image: Portrait of Benedetto Blaise Russo

On January 30, 2016, Benny passed away after a brief battle with cancer. He was 79 years old, but young at heart. He is still loved, missed, and remembered by the people whose lives he impacted. There are many of them.

“Everybody knew him, and he knew everybody,” Benny’s son Bryan said. “The way he interacted with folks was always amazing. He got along with everybody”

What is Benny remembered for, exactly? Well, many things. His soft-spoken nature. His kind smile. The way he would joke with people to make them feel comfortable. Still, to the people who knew Benny, one quality stands out most of all: his desire to help anyone, young or old, who was less fortunate than him. He had a special place in his heart for senior citizens, and served on the board of directors of the Council on Aging of Elkhart County from 2012 until his passing in 2016.

The world could use more people like Benny Russo. Fortunately for us, Elkhart County has many of them right here. Starting in 2017, the Council on Aging will honor these fine individuals.  Each year, the Council on Aging will select a member of our community to receive the Benny Russo Community Award. The recipient will be someone whose character, accomplishments, and stature in Elkhart County are on the same level as Benny Russo’s, and who reflects the values Benny demonstrated throughout his life.  And what a life it was.

About Benny

Benny Russo was born on Oct. 8, 1936, in Elkhart. He met his future wife, Carole Anne (Grooms), when they were introduced by a mutual friend at an Elkhart pizzeria. They were engaged six months after they began dating, and married on Feb. 23, 1957. They had three children: Bryan, Leslie, and (the late) Jeff.

Benny retired from the recreational vehicle industry in 2003, but his work was far from done.

He served as the Osolo Township trustee for 13 years, and prior to that was an Osolo Township board member for seven years. One of the duties of the trustee’s office is to provide poor relief. Through his work in that office, Benny was able to improve the lives of many people in Osolo Township. He made sure that everyone who came to his office was treated with respect.

Benny also worked tirelessly with Elkhart County officials to clean up Osolo Township’s Prairie Creek Run (known to some as the Sawmill area) just outside the Elkhart city limits. According to Carole, Benny’s clean-up effort involved removing 150 loads of old tires, household items, and just plain junk.

Benny was an active member and greeter at Elkhart Trinity United Methodist Church and served on the church’s Foundation board and its Matthew 25 board. He also generously volunteered his time serving on a number of community boards, including the Boys & Girls Club of Elkhart, the Council on Aging, and the Riverview Adult Day Center.

“There was no line where the man ended and the volunteer started,” his daughter Leslie said. “It all blended into one.”

A loving father to his own children, Benny wanted the best for other young people, too. He was instrumental in the expansion of Boys & Girls Club services in Elkhart. When the first clubs were opened at Osolo and Beardsley elementary schools, Benny had tears in his eyes when the first kids came in after school to use them.

Kevin Deary, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Elkhart County, said Benny was “the kindest man I have ever met.”
“We serve over 1,000 children today in Elkhart alone,” he said. “Everything we are is because Ben opened the doors and made the connection.”

Benny’s kindness was also felt at Riverview Adult Day Center, which provides services to senior citizens in the Elkhart area. “He was such a go-getter,” said Nicole Hardy-Pagels, Riverview executive director. “If you needed something, he was the first guy who would volunteer. He was a man on a mission.”

Benny was honored for his good works. To list just one example, he was voted the Elkhart County Trustee of the Year in 2011. He was also posthumously awarded the prestigious Sagamore of the Wabash. Bestowed by the governor, the Sagamore is Indiana’s highest honor. The Council on Aging nominated Benny for the Sagamore, and worked diligently to see that he was honored for his accomplishments.

Benny certainly deserved the accolades. To him, though, being of service to others was its own reward.  

“That was who he was,” Carole said. “He didn’t do it for any kind of acclaim.”

“He couldn’t care less about recognition,” Bryan said. “He just did it because he thought that’s what everybody should do.”

“I don’t think he ever told anyone he was too busy to help them,” Leslie said. “It just didn’t occur to him to say ‘no.’ If he couldn’t help you, he took you to somebody who could.”

Benny Russo certainly didn’t say no to us, and we at the Council on Aging were honored to have him serve on our board. There were many instances when Benny’s help was invaluable to us. Benny guided the move to our new offices at the Elkhart Train Depot, where it was apparent that something needed to be done about the old carpet. We were told the cost to replace it would be $8,000. “Nah,” Benny said. He had a better idea, and put us in touch with someone who did a fantastic job of cleaning the carpet for $900. For an agency like ours, cost savings like that mean a lot.

Then there was the issue with one of our service vans – the tires were so bad that nobody wanted to drive it. Benny paid for new tires.
The Council on Aging purchases its service vehicles from the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT). We have to raise a portion of the purchase price locally, and there was a time when we had trouble doing so. Again, Benny was there to help. He put us in touch with Elkhart County’s township trustees, who saw the value in the Council on Aging’s mission and have contributed to our transportation needs ever since.
During a November board meeting near the end of his life, Benny asked us if we were having a Christmas party for our Council on Aging team members. We told him there was no money for that. Benny wouldn’t hear of it, and made sure we had the funds for a Christmas celebration.

That’s the kind of guy he was.

We loved working with Benny. It was a partnership that made sense. He was dedicated to helping people, and so are we.