I want to honor the life of Ben Williams, UP’s President of the Board, who passed away unexpectedly a few weeks ago. Losing Ben has left a huge void in my heart, as Ben was a mentor, role-model, and thought-partner to me. Ben’s life work was deeply connected to the principles and values of UP. He worked throughout his life to help students find their passions and follow them. He believed deeply in student-centered, self-directed learning. Ben saw every experience as an opportunity to teach and, equally, as an opportunity to learn. He never hesitated to give those around him his full attention. This is something I will deeply miss: the hours that Ben spent with me thinking about UP and our work to transform the education system to be more equitable and engaging for all young people. He created a sense of community and place no matter where he was. He was an incredible listener, storyteller and thinker.
Ben was also a lifelong educator. After he spent years on the road teaching with the Audubon Expedition Institute, he returned to graduate school at Lesley College, followed by his time at Harvard, where he explored the theoretical side of placed-based, student-centered learning. Ben then taught at Goddard College and Union Institute and University. During this time he also chaired his local school board, volunteered at his children’s school, and shared his passion of birding and nature with many. In his retirement, we were so lucky to have him chair the UP board. He would drop everything to have a conversation about what felt most pressing in education and how UP might support more young people.
At last year’s annual meeting, Ben shared how he felt that UP has made a huge investment in and contribution to what he called “small e” education. This is the type of education that brings people together because of a real need, to build community, and make learning relevant. He went on to say that the “big E” education, which has been responsible for “teaching” a subject matter in what historically has been an industrialized model, has depended on the “small e,” and that UP ignites the “small e” in everything we do. He was not one to “hop on a quick Zoom” as we do so often these days. Rather, he desired to sit together to think through complex problems. This summer he worked tirelessly to support those impacted by the July flood, and helped us set up our new office space in Waterbury. I miss Ben so much, and know that it was a gift to have had the opportunity to work together and learn from him.