National News [USA, Canada, Europe and Australia]

Storyteller's Life is a Story that Needs Telling

Posted: Wednesday, May 31, 2000 at 07:53 PM CT

CHICAGO, Illinois — Indefatigable Ben Daniel combined two loves: writing and Assyrian culture. If you have something in your life that you are passionate about, you are indeed a fortunate person.

Ben Daniel was one of the lucky ones.

For Ben, who died last week at age 62, the passion was writing. An English teacher at Lake View School for almost 30 years, Ben loved the written word. There were stories out there that need telling, ideas that demanded discussion. Ben knew that was his mission, to get those stories and opinions out.

As Rita, his wife of 30 years, put it, writing "was the love of his life."

Ben used his love of the written word to preserve and promote something else that was so dear to him - his Assyrian culture. The Assyrian people haven't had their country for thousands of years. Yet they have remained a people with their own written and spoken language as well as a rich culture. Today, the land that was Assyria is within Iraq. Assyrians live all over the world, with some 75,000 in the Chicago area alone.

But Ben never gave up on the idea of the Assyrian people one day being able to have their own country within Iraq. And he never stopped working to preserve his heritage.

Much of his free time was spent on his newspaper, the Assyrian Guardian. Ben was publisher of the paper for 15 years. Actually, Ben was the Assyrian Guardian. He wrote the stories, took the photos, designed the pages, sold the ads and had it printed. And then he distributed the papers, some by mail but most by car or on foot. His position brought regular radio and TV appearances and occasional guest commentaries in the daily newspapers.

As someone who received the paper for more than 10 years, I always was impressed by how professional it was. Ben was pretty savvy and used the paper as a way to gain political access locally for his people. Issue after issue included interviews or meetings Ben and other Assyrian leaders would have with all sorts of government and political leaders. He wanted the powers that be to understand the plight of these people whose culture lacked a physical homeland. Their willingness to meet with him also showed his success in showing that Assyrians were a well-organized group that could deliver votes.

While there is no doubt Ben was much-loved by his community, he never shied away from taking a stand that was controversial or unpopular. A few even brought him threats, but he never backed down.

"Ben was never afraid," said Rita.

But then cancer attacked his body three years ago, and for a time, publication of the Assyrian Guardian was suspended. I kept my fingers crossed that eventually that drive to tell stories that had to be told would fuel Ben's drive to get better, and eventually he did publish again.

Cancer is a tough opponent, and over time Ben became weaker and weaker. You could see it in his walk. This man whom I 'd see zipping around the neighborhood suddenly was moving so slowly, pain evident in his every step. Yet he wouldn't quit. Often Rita would accompany him, urging him to rest along the way. He'd push himself, despite feeling so ill, because he had stories he wanted told.

Finally, he couldn't produce the Guardian anymore. Even if he could sit at the computer long enough to write it, he was too sick to handle its distribution. That had to have been a sad moment for Ben. Please, let him get strong enough to do this paper just one more time, so many prayed, but it wasn't to be.

Yet till the end he wanted, needed, to write. During his tenure at Lake View he contributed articles to the school's paper, the Lake Review. His last article, written after he was forced to take sick leave, was on how important it is for parents to stay involved in their child's education, even at the high school level. He and Rita arrived at the school and found it closed. But Ben knew he had a deadline to meet, a story to be told. Somehow he got into that school, and the frail man slowly made his way down the long, empty corridors and left his story.

When the Lake Review was printed, teachers brought the issue to Ben. He saw his story, knew that he's met his last deadline. A professional to the end. For that he was a happy man.

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