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Celebrating the BW legacy of Dr. Obie Bender’62

As a student, he led the Yellow Jackets to an undefeated season. As an employee in a cabinet role, he spearheaded efforts to move BW forward in areas of diversity and inclusion. And as a man, he was a father, mentor and friend to all who knew him.

graphic of Dr. Obie Bender for 2023 Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, BW celebrates the life and memory of Dr. Obie Bender '62, who came to the university from Canton, Ohio, with a passion to succeed and a desire to be of service to others.

In time and with the loving support of his wife, Betty, he opened his home to countless BW students. But, more importantly, he opened his heart to an altruistic belief that family is not only defined by ancestry but also by ties that unite us for a greater purpose inspired by universal and unconditional love.

Champion for diversity and inclusion

photo of coach Lee Tressel and athlete Obie Bender

"From the moment my father stepped on BW's campus as a linebacker for Lee Tressel, he began to create templates that would show others how to overcome obstacles," recalled his oldest daughter, Lydia Carter. "He was an 18-year-old with a wife and baby. He had married his high school sweetheart Betty (McCullough) Bender in 1958 just before leaving Canton to play college football at BW."

He faced the unjust racial challenges of the day. But no obstacle could deter his determination or lessen the integrity to which he saw himself as a builder of bridges to achieve unity and equality for all.

"Obie was a caring, compassionate person committed to the mission of Baldwin Wallace throughout his illustrious 36-year career at BW," noted Richard Fletcher, retired senior vice president. "He was a champion and advocate for diversity and inclusion at BW long before those terms became part of the lexicon we frequently hear today."

"Obie provided valuable insight and served Baldwin Wallace with dignity and grace. He left his mark on BW in many important ways that live on," Fletcher emphasized.

Dutiful son who enjoyed gridiron glory

photo of Obie Bender with his mother and brother

A gifted storyteller who could weave wit and wisdom into a narrative, Bender was known for being humble about his own achievements. But ask him about his football days and team success ... and you'd soon see a glint of gridiron pride in his eyes as he shared memories from his high school and BW days.

"My grandma Mattie told my father he could play any sport at high school except football because she felt it was too rough. Finally, after much debate with my father, she told him he could play football if he took Latin. My father took Latin, aced it and became a high school football star," recalled daughter Rhonda Lassiter '84.

Lassiter went on to say that her grandma never went to any of her son's football games because she didn't want to see her baby boy get hit on the field. But one day, she relented and went to Berea.

photos of Obie Bender from BW yearbook and work

"It was a cold fall day. My dad had taken his helmet off on the sideline when suddenly he heard clearly from the stands, 'Obie, you put that helmet back on; it's cold out here!' Dad was never more embarrassed while playing, but he put it back on. He remembers being teased by his fellow players," Lassiter said fondly in remembrance of a dear grandma who was the family matriarch and a guiding presence in her son's life.

Paying it forward

Bender began his career at BW in 1970 under the tenure of Dr. Alfred Bryan (A.B.) Bonds. From the start, his passion was student success. He helped students in need - from offering guidance to providing financial assistance to housing them in his home. No one was turned away. And though there are countless recipients of his generosity, two individuals share tributes to the legacy of Obie Bender.

'The Father I never had'
(as shared by Joseph Cook '92)

"I met Obie when I was a freshman at BW. He advised me on classes, helped me with my chosen career path, lent me money when I needed it and treated me like family. I was always invited to his house for meals and cookouts. This was not only an Obie decision, but one supported and recommended by his wife, Betty.

photo of Obie Bender with Joseph Cook

"After graduation, our relationship became deeper. Obie became the father I never had. He was always there and treated me like I was his son.

"It was his mission to help anyone he could. Having been very active in the civil rights movement, Obie carried that spirit with him. His commitment was doing what he could to improve the lives of others.

"I did some stupid stuff and got into some legal trouble while in college. The first call I made for help was to Obie. He pulled together all the resources necessary to help me. Once it was all handled, and he knew I was ok, he then proceeded to tear into me about how stupid I was to have done what I did.

"I took no offense because I knew he switched into a father role with me. Not only did he put me on the right track, but he also made me realize that in order to make this world a better place, we have to reach back and help others who are trying to move forward. I have since applied that concept to my life. I do this because it is the right thing to do, because it is what Obie would do and because it is an honor to continue the work Obie believed in."

'An experience I will never forget'
(as shared by Bennett Gaines '75, member of the BW Board of Trustees)

"I met Obie the first few days I was on campus. He introduced himself as Obie, and I introduced myself as Lamar. That's my middle name and what I went by all through college. Little did I know, that would begin a lifelong relationship with a man that helped shape my life and guide me through so many challenging times.

headshot of BW trustee Bennett Gaines

"Sunday was a very lean day for food on campus. I didn't have family in the area, so I couldn't go home for a meal, and money was tight. Obie invited me to his home for Sunday dinner. I had the great fortune of meeting Betty and all his children. I don't remember what we had for supper, but I remember walking back to my dorm full of love and happiness.

"My words to best describe Obie are authentic, love and hope. You knew Obie for who he was, not his title, his degrees or his accomplishments. He wanted to know you in that same way. Obie didn't tell me he loved me; he showed me. He opened up his home, his family and himself to unconditional love. So many times, I needed his assistance, guidance and support, and he provided. That lasted 40+ years.

"I was living in England in the early 2000s. I love golf and was attending the Ryder Cup at the Belfry. I heard from behind me someone saying, 'Lamar.' Then I heard it a second time. I knew it could only be one person - Obie. I immediately went over and hugged Obie and Betty. Tears of joy came to my eyes. Obie was on the board of the PGA at the time and attended the tournament. We had the greatest time talking about BW, catching up with life and conversing about our families. Truly, it was an experience I will never forget."

A Closer Look

photo of the Obie and Betty Bender family

  • The son of Pervus and Mattie (Dillard) Bender, Obie was born August 28, 1940.

  • His education included a B.S. in education from BW and an M.S. in education and a Ph.D. from The University of Akron.

  • He was married to his high school sweetheart Betty for 62 years. She currently resides in Strongsville, Ohio. Their children, all college graduates with multiple degrees, include Lydia Carter, Craig Bender '82, Rhonda Lassiter '84 and Monica Bender.

  • Bender achieved multiple BW football honors, including the Ray E. Watts Most Valuable Player Award and the Cleveland Touchdown Club's Cleveland College Football Player-of-the-Year. His 1961 football season, one which saw the Yellow Jackets have its only undefeated, untied campaign in the school's history, was climaxed by his presence on the NAIA and the 6th Annual Methodist All-America football teams. He also was the recipient of the Dick Van Almen Award as the outstanding BW lineman in 1960. Bender was inducted into the BW Alumni Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 1976.

formal photo of Obie and Betty Bender

  • He was very active in civic affairs in the Canton and Cleveland area. He was named to the national board of directors of the PGA and served as a player program consultant for the Cleveland Browns.

  • Bender worked under four BW presidents - Dr. Alfred Bonds, Dr. Neal Malicky, Dr. Mark Collier and Richard Durst. His titles ranged from assistant to the president in 1970 to executive assistant to the president in 2003. He retired from BW in December 2006.

  • The BW "Obie and Betty Bender Scholarship" was established in 2012.

  • On Jan. 9, 2021, Bender passed away at age 80.

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