'Gentle Ben' Ewing is retiring after 21 years in the House

By Lynn R. Parks

Gentle Ben is leaving the House. After more than 21 years as a state representative, J. Benjamin Ewing, a Bridgeville Republican, is retiring. He announced his retirement shortly before the end of the 144th General Assembly, June 30. Gentle Ben was a tame bear in a children's book and on a 1960s television show. Ewing, 77, said that he is proud of the nickname his fellow legislators gave him, "because of my size," he said – Ewing is a tall man – and because of the gentle demeanor he has. "That name stuck the whole time I was in the House," he said. "I always thought it was a nice compliment." True to his nickname, Ewing keeps stacks of "Free Hug Coupons" and is quick to hand out the small yellow cards. He likes to tell women how pretty they are – "If I have said to any lady staffer or lady representative that she is the prettiest woman I have ever seen, I want you to know that I really meant it," he said in the House in his farewell speech. Legislatively, he has always supported the right of citizens to carry guns. Before his final day in the House, he was presented with the Defender of Freedom award from the National Rifle Association, and the Delaware Patriot award from the Delaware Sportsmen's Club. He is also adamantly pro-life, or "not pro-death," as he calls his stand. He voted against this year's state budget because it contained funding for Planned Parenthood. "If the budget had needed my vote to pass, I would have voted for it, because there are people who need to be paid," he said. But giving money to Planned Parenthood "is not the correct thing to do and not the right thing to do." When Randy Richardson, whose daughter, Lauren, is in a persistent vegetative state after taking an overdose of heroin in 2006, needed someone in the House to sponsor a resolution affirming the state's desire to protect brain-damaged people, Richardson turned to Ewing. Richardson, Newark, is in a court battle to keep his daughter's feeding tube in place. House Resolution 75, sponsored by Ewing and passed June 30 on a voice vote, declares that "it is against the public policy of this State and this State's interest in life, health and safety, for hydration and nutrition that is not harming a patient to be involuntarily removed from a non-terminal, apparently brain-incapacitated patient if doing so will cause the individual's death." "I guess he came to me because he realized my compassion toward these things," Ewing said. A thank-you note that Ewing received from a Richardson supporter said, "We knew that you were the only one who could [get the resolution through]." When asked what failures he encountered in his two decades as a legislator, Ewing could come up with only one: his inability in 2005 to get a House resolution passed in support of the effort to keep Terry Schiavo, a Florida woman who was in a persistent vegetative state, alive. "I wanted us to say that we supported her not being taken off life support," Ewing said. "It did not pass the House. That was a disappointment." And his triumphs? "The bill for the establishment of the state's 911 centers, and the bill for our enhanced 911 system," he said. "They have saved a lot of lives in Delaware already."

A history of service
Ewing, a native of Rehoboth Beach and a 1950 graduate of Rehoboth High School, came into politics after a 20-year career as a state policeman. He retired from the Delaware State Police in 1978 as a lieutenant colonel and deputy superintendent of the force. After his good friend and neighbor, Brad Barnes, a member of the House from Bridgeville, died suddenly in 1987, Ewing was asked by the Republican Party to run in an emergency election to fill the seat.

"They asked me two times and I said no two times," Ewing said. He told his wife, Pat, that, like Gideon did in the Bible, he would set a test to determine if he should run. In the Old Testament, Gideon put a fleece outside and told God that if it was wet one morning and dry the next, he would accept the charge to lead Israel's army. "I told Pat that if they asked me to run a third time, I would say yes," Ewing said. "It would be a new experience, and we would make new friends." Sure enough, when representatives of then Gov. Mike Castle's office called a third time, Ewing agreed to enter the race. He won, defeating Democrat Ken McDowell, Bridgeville, and since then has won all 10 races he has been in, four of them with no opponent. Ewing has endorsed Dave Wilson, a Republican from Milford, as his successor. But, he said, even if Democrat Aaron Chaffinch, Greenwood, like Ewing a retired state policeman, wins the race, he will not be disappointed. "Whoever wins, Delaware and Sussex County will be served well," he said.

Leaving with mixed emotions
Ewing said that he is leaving the House with mixed emotions. He will officially no longer be the 35th District representative after Election Day, and he is worried about how he will fill his days. "I don't know what I am going to do with my time," he said. "I don't just want to sit around the house, watching TV and reading." Ewing is retiring because of illness. He was recently diagnosed with cancer in his kidney that has spread to his lung. On July 30, he will undergo surgery in Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore. From there, doctors will evaluate what's next, he said. "We'll see what the Lord has in mind for me," Ewing said. In his farewell speech to the House, Ewing, in addition to reminding all the women there that they are pretty, quoted one of his favorite American heroes, Gen. Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur, a World War II general, led U.S. forces in the Korean War in 1950 and 1951. Ewing, who served in the Marine Corps from 1950 to 1953, was in Korea for 14 months during that war. Ewing reminded the members of the House of MacArthur's farewell speech to the U.S. Congress, in which MacArthur said, "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away. And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away – an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty." "I am like MacArthur," Ewing told his fellow Delaware state representatives. "I will now start fading away."

J. Benjamin Ewing
Family: three children, Benjamin B., Georgetown, Rick, Seaford, and Penny Pritchett, Bridgeville, and nine grandchildren. His wife, Pat, died in 2007. Education: Rehoboth High School, 1950, and "every course the state police ever offered," including enough credits, he said, to have a bachelor's degree. Career: Delaware State Police, 1958 to 1978, and instructor at the State Police Academy for 13 years; director of the Methodist Manor House, Seaford, 1979 - 1983; salesman with Adams Feed, Bridgeville, 1983 to 1987; Delaware state representative, 1987 through the present. Since his start in the House, he has served as chairman of the Public Safety Committee. He is also a member of the Homeland Security Committee.

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