Cleveland dies at 69
Ben Cleveland, whose work ethic and values helped shape the lives of many, died Jan. 15. He was 69. “Benny,” as he was known, had a storied career in education, first at the high school level, then at Cowley. The Oklahoma native and his wife, Irene, moved to Arkansas City in 1954. After six years of teaching and coaching at Arkansas City High School, Cleveland embarked on a 34-year career at Cowley.
He retired in 1994. Cleveland served Cowley in a variety of capacities, including head football coach, baseball coach, men’s tennis coach, and assistant basketball coach. Academically, he was an industrial arts instructor, and chairman of the Industrial Technology Department. Ed Hargrove, Cowley’s head softball coach, played football for Cleveland during the 1965 and 1966 seasons. He also was an assistant football coach with him from 1973-75. Hargrove remembers Cleveland’s attention to detail. “We would do something in practice, and if he wasn’t totally satisfied with it, we’d stay for hours,” Hargrove said. “Benny always said, if it was worth doing, it was worth doing right.”
In all the years Hargrove played and worked with Cleveland, he never heard a bad word out of his mouth. “Sometimes, guys conspired to make Benny cuss, and he never would,” said Hargrove, who played offensive tackle for the Tigers. “In the two years I played and three years I coached with him, I never heard him cuss. He was calm, cool, and collected in bad times.”
Benny LeRoy Cleveland was born Jan. 16, 1932 in Dewey, Okla. After graduating high school, Cleveland played football four years at Northeastern Oklahoma State University in Tahlequah. He also played for the Bob May Builders semi-professional baseball team. On May 6, 1951, he married Irene M. Webber in Dewey, and the couple lived in Tahlequah until Ben graduated. After graduation, the Clevelands moved to Arkansas City.
At Cowley, known then as Arkansas City Junior College, Cleveland’s carpentry classes built more than 30 homes in Arkansas City. As a coach, Cleveland provided many fond memories. Hargrove recalled a few. “It was always kind of a joke among players, but because of the budget or whatever, when we’d go on a road trip to Garden City or Fort Scott, we’d have a pre-game meal and a post-game meal,” Hargrove said. “For our pre-game meal, Benny would find a rest stop along the route, and we’d have our Nutriment, a chocolate drink, and melba toast. We always kidded that we couldn’t wait until we got to the park for our pre-game meal.” Hargrove also remembers that Cleveland’s practice schedule rarely was followed. “We would almost always run 45 minutes to an hour beyond what the practice schedule said,” Hargrove said. “I can remember times when we were at Carver Park when we’d turn car lights on so we could finish practice.”
Cleveland, a stickler for details, had many accomplishments while at Cowley. He was chosen as Teacher of the Year for the 1986-87 academic year, he received a recognition plaque for his long-time commitment to student athletes, and on Feb. 26, 2000, he was one of nine people inducted into the first Tiger Athletic Hall of Fame class. Hargrove remembered another story. “I was fairly tall at 6-3, and I thought I had really good hands,” he said. “I had played basketball, baseball, and football. I thought I should have played tight end at Cowley. I was always after Benny to call a tackle-eligible pass. My last game my sophomore year, we were ahead of Haskell and on their 10-yard-line. We called a tackle-eligible pass, and I went into the end zone and broke toward the flag. The quarterback, Den Harrell of Valley Center, threw the ball over the fence. He missed me by 15 yards. There was nobody within five or 10 yards of me. Benny gave me that one chance for glory. After the play, he just laughed.”
Cleveland’s reputation as a nice man earned him respect from fellow coaches and players. “I told Irene that other than my Dad, I probably had more respect for Benny than any man I’ve been associated with through the years,” Hargrove said. “Just because of the way he lived his life. He was always for the other guy. It was never about Benny. That’s the way he coached and lived.”
He is survived by his wife, Irene of the home; son, Rick Cleveland and his wife, Debbie of Arkansas City; daughter, Debby Allen and her husband, Col. Paul Allen, U.S.M.C. of Coconut Creek, Fla.; mother, Jennie Mae Cleveland of Dewey, Okla.; grandchildren, Amy Bollack of Carbondale, Colo.; Jobie Nudo of Ponca City, Okla., Addy Allen of Coconut Creek, Fla., Jennifer Cleveland of Arkansas City, Tate Allen of Blacksburg, Va., Angey Allen of Coconut Creek, Fla., Julie Cleveland and Benjamin Cleveland both of Arkansas City; step-grandchildren, Cliff Wilson of New Orleans, La., Shea Wilson and Kimberly Wilson, both of Arkansas City, and one great granddaughter, Makayla Nudo of Ponca City, Okla. He was preceded in death by his father. A memorial has been established with the Tiger Athletic Hall of Fame. Contributions may be made by calling the Athletic Office at (620) 441-5268.