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THE SPIRIT OF LOWELL

Meeting the challenge of clearing 10 acres of sagebrush from the high desert plain near Trout Creek, Nev., at age 14 made an impact on Lowell Bennion - a profound impact that has affected his life and the lives of thousands of other teenage boys.

Bennion and his brother Wayne were ready to give up on the task when their uncle Ted told them a handicapped boy on an adjoining ranch had cleared 10 acres the previous summer. Humbled, the boys returned to the challenge and completed the work."I did a man's job at 14 years-old and I was afraid of nothing after working for Uncle Ted," Bennion said as he recalled the events of that fateful summer.

Meeting that challenge instilled a desire in Bennion to provide a similar opportunity for other teens. That desire fueled his dream to someday own a ranch that would cater to teenage boys and provide them with the confidence needed to cross the chasm from boyhood to manhood.

Bennion determined that his "dream" ranch would have a beautiful setting, be privately owned, have good water and be affordable.

Reading the newspaper listings of farms and ranches for sale became a weekly ritual in the Bennion home, said Bennion's son, Steve. It was a ritual that would go on for years as Bennion searched for but failed to find his dream ranch in Utah.

In the late 1950s Bennion moved to Idaho where he taught at Ricks College in Rexburg. It was there that he asked Grant Wilson if there might be a ranch in the area that son Steve might work at during the summer. Wilson took Steve to his family ranch located in Teton Valley on the slopes of the Grand Tetons in eastern Idaho. Two other sons, Doug and Howard, would also eventually spend summers working at area ranches.

Bennion himself grew fond of the valley and fell in love with the land. the valley renewed his 40-year quest to turn his dream into reality. He found his ranch - 160 acres in an area just west of Victor with an awesome view of the Grand Tetons.

Bennion began translating the dream into a workable plan. He didn't want a dude ranch where kids would come to play nor was he interested in a money-making venture. He envisioned a real working ranch where boys would work hard, learn skills and gain a sense of accomplishment, where self-esteem and confidence would be by products the kids could take with them into manhood.

And, after their three- or four-week stay, the young men would receive a $50 rebate from their tuition fee - a reward so to speak for a job well done.

"At first we worked the boys all day,' Bennion said, "But that was too much. We later decided to work hard every morning, enjoy horses, sports and other activities the rest of the day and to stimulate our minds in the evening with discussions and debates."

For 25 summers (1961-1985), Bennion and his wife, Merle, ran the Bennion Teton Boys Ranch. Three Teton Valley locals also played instrumental roles in making the ranch a success: Art Kersley, who taught the boys how to ride and take care of the horses; Dale Marcom, who helped plan and carry out the work projects; and Veda Thompson, the cook.

More than 2,000 boys made the transition from boyhood to manhood during those 25 summers.

Health problems forced Bennion to give up running the ranch in 1985. It was a decision made with much reluctance on Bennion's part.

But, by then, Bennion's dream was alive in others. In 1988 a group was formed to buy the ranch, and in the summer of 1989 the ranch reopened and continues today.

The non-sectarian enterprise hosts three sessions each summer where approximately 37 boys between the ages of 12 and 15 come for a three-week stay. Between eight and 10 scholarships annually are provided by the ranch's board of directors for youths who cannot afford the tuition price and to help provide a socioeconomic balance.

The ranch is not a rehabilitation center. Applications, which include personal histories and signed statements from the boy and parents, are carefully screened. Drug and alcohol use are strictly forbidden.

And while much time is spent selecting boys to attend the sessions, an equal amount of time is invested in making sure the ranch also has the "right" counselors. Most are between 17 and 23 years old, and they are expected to serve as role models. A senior and junior counselor are assigned to each bunkhouse.

While Steve Bennion was serving as president of Snow College in Ephraim, Sanpete County, he came to know Steve and Kathy Peterson. A member of the board of directors, Steve Bennion was instrumental in convincing other board members that the Petersons would make a perfect team to direct the ranch. Steve Peterson, an English professor at Snow, and Kathy, a talented artist, are what Steve Bennion describes as "young at heart."

Peterson met extensively with Lowell Bennion while planning the reopening to make sure tha ranch would continue the spirit of its founder.

"I asked Lowell if he wanted this to be a religious experience for the boys," Peterson recalled. "Lowell pondered the question for a few seconds and thoughtfully answered, `No, but I think it should be a spiritural one.'"

Bennion also cautioned Peterson to "remember the work projects are for the boys, not the work projects."

The Petersons say they have worked hard to keep what they call "the spirit of Lowell" at the ranch.

Those living at the ranch rise at sunup, have their bunks inspected and meet at the lodge for breakfast. After eating they meet to volunteer for work assignments ranging from building fences and pipelines to helping with kitchen chores to helping paint a widow's home in the nearby valley.

When the lunch bell clangs, work comes to a screeching halt. After eating, it's time to choose from a variety of activities. Among the choices are tie-dying T-shirts, making pottery, painting water colors, riding horses, playing soccer, swimming, playing basketball, going fishing, playing music, writing or composing poetry.

At night, it's back to the lodge to "exercise the minds" with debates and discussions. One night might involve discussing attributes they admire in fellow campers while another might involve having a panel of teenage girls in to answer questions about dating, a program that has proven popular. There is also a talent night and a night featuring a bluegrass jam session.

The Bennion presence is also felt at the camp in the form of Lindsey Stone and Kathryn Bennion, Lowell's granddaughters. They get a lot of attention from the boys, and they offer a unique perspective on the ranch.

"Grandpa lives with us so I've heard the stories about 100 times. My mom cooked for the boys here 30 years ago, and she always tells me how easy I have it. We learn to work as much as the boys. I'm really surprised how many boys don't know how to cook, do dishes, sweep and mop. The list goes on," laughed Lindsey.

Kathryn agreed, "It is hard work, more non-fun work than the boys. We also get a lot of teasing from the counselors as much as the boys." No doubt.

What sets the ranch apart from other programs is the focus on adventure. It is not a santized program designed to "straighten out kids." It is more about allowing boys to be boys as they become young men. It is about counselors growing as well as they realize the responsibility of being role models. And, it is about respect - for self and for others.

About a half-mile from the lodge is a grove of pines with log benches arranged to form an amphitheater. The "chapel in the Pines" provides a panoramic view of the Teton Valley. Each Sunday evening, the boys gather for a nondenominational meeting where they are invited to stand up and simply state what they believe. For many it is the first time they ask themselves, "What do I believe?" It is also at this meeting where the boys do most of the soul-searching that Lowell Bennion envisioned.

"One of the toughest boys we had here came from a background where his father was in jail and his mother arranged to have him at the ranch, hoping that it would help give him some guidance. He would just sit alone and cry, emotionally drained for a half-hour after everyone left," Peterson said.

Dr. Jeff Schmidt spent two years as a camper and five years as a counselor beginning in 1966. He in now a member of the board of directors.

"I can remember the ranch as the place were I enjoyed working the first time. It was a fun type of work, not like cleaning your room. I helped build the tool shed and I still go up and see it there 30 years later," recalled Schmidt.

"One night we were all discussing what we were afraid of. I said I was afraid of the devil. Lowell said, `Jeff, you shouldn't be afraid of the devil, he's going to hell. You need to forget about him and get on with your life.'"

Schmidt also has a vivid memory of the time he went with Lowell to give a sunrise service at the top of Grand Targhee. "We were on the ski lift when it broke for an hour. I'll never forget that hour hanging in the air talking about life with Lowell."

Bennion is now 86 years old and crippled by Parkinson's disease. His mind is sharp, but he can barely walk. This summer he returned to the ranch he dreamed about. He insisted on working in the garden with a few of the boys and in taking part in the discussions at night.

"It completely exhausted him physically but regenerated him spiritually," said Steve Bennion.

With the Teton Valley Boys Ranch, Lowell Bennion has left a legacy that will last for many years. When the boys are at the ranch they may not hear his words, but they will read them in the various quotes hanging on the walls throughout the lodge.

It is hard to measure how many lives have been forever changed because of one man's dream.

There is, however, one I can measure. I can remember being almost 12 years old in 1965, walking down from the Upper Bunk at sunrise to work with Lowell in his garden and listen to the things that mattered most.

For more information about donations or applications for the Bennion Teton Boys Ranch write: Bennion Teton Boys Ranch, c/o Heidi Shipp, 2711 St. Mary's Way, Salt Lake City, UT 84108.