In 1984 when Rex Benson was hired to teach band at Mendota High School, he had some big shoes to fill. The school’s former band director, Robert Baile, had been at MHS for more than a quarter-century and during that time, he had brought new ideas to the school while building a highly regarded music program. But Benson - young, confident and energetic – believed he was a “good fit” for the Mendota program and now, 25 years later, time has proven him right.
Benson, who will retire at the end of this school year, recently reflected on his teaching career, which started in 1975 with a six-year stint at Minonk-Dana-Rutland (now Fieldcrest High School) followed by three years at Chillicothe. Sitting in his office, a small space filled with pictures and memorabilia just off the band room at the high school, Benson said the decision to accept a job at MHS was easy. “What happened at IVC [Chillicothe], Caterpillar contested their taxes one year, froze all of the assets going into the school and they had to let 25 teachers go - just decimated the place,” he recalled. “I was low man on the totem pole, the last one hired as far as music. The band parents had already gone to the school board and they were prepared to pay my salary, which was a good feeling, but I thought, ‘So OK, the kids are going out selling cheese and sausage to pay my salary. Hmmm?’”
Benson had learned through some friends that two schools, Mendota and Rochelle, both had openings for music teachers and they encouraged him to apply. “So I interviewed and was given the job here,” Benson said, adding with a chuckle, “I accepted the job before Rochelle even got ahold of me to come in for an interview.”
When Benson moved to Mendota, he brought along his wife, Chris, who was also a music teacher. Benson said he first met Chris on the marching band field at Illinois State University, where they were both music majors. For the first nine years of their careers, they found themselves teaching at separate schools and often their bands competed against each other. “But we laughed and said as long as we came in first and second, it was OK,” he recalled with a chuckle.
The couple agreed that Mendota was the ideal-sized town for them. Benson said he grew up in a town so small that even after several consolidations, the high school he attended simply ceased to exist. “All that’s left is the gym and it’s now the community center - you walk in and here’s all the names of the high schools and the names of the different mascots and stuff. We were the Leprechauns,” he laughed.
Chris, on the other hand, attended huge suburban schools but neither Benson wanted to return to those extremes. Eventually Chris was hired as assistant band and choir director at MHS, a position she held for the next decade. “When we came here we knew that Hugh Richardson was going to retire and we had hopes [of Chris getting the job] and I think administration saw it as that – a two for one kind of a thing,” Benson said. “We were the music department - a husband and wife team for 10 years.”
What was it like taking over a highly regarded music program at a new school? Benson credited both Baile and Richardson with helping him through that first year. “What people may not be aware of and what made the smooth transition was that Mr. Baile set it up for transition,” Benson explained. “He brought me in and introduced me to the kids that summer and set it up with students and parents to be ready to accept change. Hopefully, I’ve done the same thing with Justin [Davis] who’s coming in.
“The other thing was having Hugh Richardson. He was doing the assistant band and directing choir - the position Lori Schrock has now,” Benson noted.
The team of Baile and Richardson had worked together for so long, as Benson explained, they just knew what the other was going to do without even talking. But during Benson’s first year, he and Richardson made it a point to communicate verbally. “I can remember to this day [Mr. Richardson saying], ‘Well, this is what we’ve done. What do you want to do?’ I was no dummy. I’m walking in and going, ‘I like that. Let’s go with it,’” Benson laughed.
Benson said that sometimes he would suggest a subtle change and Richardson would agree enthusiastically. “He was just excited . . . raring to go. He was about to retire but he was still willing to try and do things,” Benson said. “It was the glue that tied things together.”
Then Mr. Baile came back into the picture. “He left us alone for a little bit,” Benson laughed, “but then he came back and started to teach some lessons and was kind of involved.”
But Benson also had another Baile to contend with his first year, Mr. Baile’s youngest daughter, Kim, who was the drum major that year. “So, not only did you have Mr. Baile’s image to live up to and follow, but now you had his daughter who’s a senior and drum major and leader of the band!”
Kim was the first MHS student to attend a drum major camp, another change instituted by Baile. Benson said the camp was held in Bloomington and since he happened to be in the area, he went looking around. As he was walking on the quad, he noticed someone with a Mendota coat on. “I said, ‘Do you know a Kim Baile from Mendota?’ And it was Kim,” he smiled. “It was one of those neat things that we met there and chatted and broke the ice a little bit.”
Although Benson was bringing some of his own ideas to Mendota, Kim was even more compelled to shake things up with the new ideas she encountered at drum major camp. “She wanted to try these things – especially with a new director,” Benson said. “But she wanted to make more changes than her classmates were willing to go along with and I had to reign her in a little. So in a way, she was kind of the buffer for change.”
In addition to support from Mr. Richardson and Mr. Baile, Benson credited that year’s senior class for giving him a chance. “[They had] a lot of talent – a lot of good kids,” he said. “I still look back to them. They were willing to give this new guy a try. I think that was pretty critical.”
Although Benson says he is ready to retire after 34 years in education, he still believes teaching is a great profession. “It’s very enjoyable to analyze a problem and then to get that across to a student - this is how you can fix or improve it. You can see the light go on in their eyes,” he said. “There’s also a lot of satisfaction in seeing students from the beginning of the year to the end whether it’s in music or any class. To see the growth and to feel you have been a part of that – there’s a lot of satisfaction in that.”
Benson added that although education has never been one of the more lucrative positions financially, it is one of the more stable and he would still recommend it to students – as long as they are committed and realize the amount of time they will spend. He said that teachers in the music field are especially faced with devoting time to career versus time with family. “That’s a tough one. Yes, your family should be first but . . . my kids grew up being here at school,” Benson admitted. “My daughter said all of the kids were like babysitters but we were all together.”
The important thing about entering any field is knowing what to expect, but especially music, Benson said. “I do think music is different. Being a high school music teacher - the time commitment, the involvement - if you think you’re working by the clock, then don’t go into it. I knew that when I went into it.”
Now that he is retiring after 25 years at MHS, Benson not only leaves behind a music program that is among the top in the state, but he has also earned the respect of educators and musicians from across Illinois. MHS superintendent Jeff Prusator said that Benson and Schrock both helped with the process of selecting a new band teacher. “We have a great resource in Mr. Benson,” Prusator said. “His reputation is highly regarded throughout the State of Illinois and that is the reason some people applied for the job. We valued his opinion going through the process.”
Although he knows he will miss the students, Benson is not so sure he will miss much else. “Part of me says I’ll miss the music. Part of me says I don’t want anything to do with music,” he laughed. “Let’s just wait and see.”
Benson said he looks forward to the new band teacher taking over and is hopeful that Davis will be receptive to continuing some things at MHS such as alumni participation and also to keeping both former band directors somewhat involved. “It’s been very enjoyable working with Mr. Baile the last 25 years and I hope we can continue to do so.”
Although he and Chris now live in Ottawa, Benson still considers Mendota “home.” “The students, the parents, the community - having been here long enough to see children of former students and their families - to know people in the community and be a part of things – that’s been real important to me,” Benson said.
Aside from that, Benson said he has no plans for the future. “I know I’ll go nuts if I’m not doing something but I’m saying no to everything right now,” he admitted with a smile. “I think something will open up. I’ve always been that way. You have to take a step back and let someone guide you. That’s how I got here. Whether that’s God or whomever, let things go.”
from the Mendota Reporter, May 26, 2009