The late Ben Willeford
Dedicated ’til the Very End

The late Ben Willeford’s commitment to social justice ran long and deep. Since Willeford arrived at Bucknell in September 1950 to teach chemistry, he was known as a social conscience not only on campus but in Lewisburg, where he joined a group of graying activists most Saturdays in front of the U.S. Post Office quietly advocating for peace on Earth.

Willeford first became involved in prison ministry during the Vietnam War era, and for the last 39 years he visited incarcerated men at the Lewisburg Penitentiary as part of the Prison Visitation and Support program. Shortly before his death at 96 on Sept. 22, Willeford visited the magazine office to speak with Julia Stevens ’20 and me about Bucknell’s — and his — enduring connections to the local prisons. Below is an edited transcript of what is most likely his last recorded conversation.

When did you start teaching at Bucknell?
September 1950.

And when did you stop teaching?
Well, that’s a good question. I officially retired from Bucknell in June of 1984, but I continued to teach for nine years after that at various places, including one semester at Bucknell.

Would you say you’re still involved in the Bucknell community past retirement?
Well, I still help out in the chemistry department a little bit, particularly in keeping track of alumni that none of the current chemistry staff knew as students. If I find out about something they’ve done professionally or parenthetically I usually inform the department.

So I understand you have been volunteering with the prison now for around 39 years. Why did you initially become interested in prison visitation?
A lot of it, I think, was sort of left over from the Vietnam War. There were a lot of conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War, which I would have been if I had been of the right age. A lot of them were imprisoned here at Lewisburg, and there were a number of demonstrations about the Vietnam War that actually took place here in Lewisburg. A man by the name of Robert Horton became interested in seeing that the people — the conscientious objectors in prison — were not forgotten. He started this program of getting people to come in and visit the conscientious objectors. After some years of that, the people he was seeing said, “Look, in essence, we know why we’re here. We’re here for a limited time. The people who really need help are these long-term people who probably made one mistake in their life, and now they’re stuck far away from families for visits, so you really ought to be visiting them.” Bob Horton was a Methodist minister, and when he retired, he established something that was called Prisoner Visitation and Support, known familiarly as PVS.

I got involved and started going out to the penitentiary to visit people. One of the things about [Horton’s PVS] is that you don’t go out there adjusting your halo and saying “I’ve come out to see you.” The prisoner has to ask for someone to come and see him. And oftentimes, they just need somebody to talk to. The only people they see have a uniform — either another prisoner in a jumpsuit or a guard in a uniform.

Interestingly enough, I’ve gotten to know a number of the prison officers as well as the prisoners and try to see things from their point of view. I have made a lot of good friends among the prisoners I have visited over the years. In the olden days, when Lewisburg was a medium-security prison, things were quite informal, but Lewisburg is now a high-security prison, and the restrictions are ever more apparent. But back in those days, I would often go out just intending to spend the day out there. I would see six to eight people who would come in successively, and we would talk about whatever they wanted. If they wanted to talk about sports, we’d talk about sports. If they wanted to talk politics, fine. If they wanted to talk religion, fine. But we do not try to force our own personal opinions and beliefs on the people we’re visiting.

Do some of the men you’ve visited stand out?
One of the most intelligent people I ever knew was a man who had been on death row just because he happened to be at a bar when somebody got killed. He got that sentence overturned and changed to life in prison. During my first visit, he came into the visiting room, and I waved at him. He continued to stand there by the entrance to the visiting room, and finally he came over, and we shook hands and sat down. He continued to look around. I didn’t say a word. Finally, he looked at me and said, “This is the first visit I have had in 28 years.” There were other families visiting, and there were children in the visiting room. He said, “This is the first time I have seen a live child — to me, children are images on the TV set or pictures in the paper.” He would ask me questions, and I’d have to go to the Bucknell library and do all sorts of research to be able to answer his question when I saw him the following month.

When you visit, do you typically try to see the same people repeatedly?
Oh yes. I’ll see them until they are transferred to another institution.

So can you describe this visiting room?
The visiting room is sort of like a bus station. There’s an entry from the cell blocks, and the prisoner has to go through a body strip search to come in and go out, so coming for a visit is not just a casual thing for them. Meanwhile, visitors have to go through a metal detector, and since I’ve got a metallic knee now, they get all bent out of shape when the detector goes off. There are tables there and red chairs for prisoners and gray chairs for visitors. You sit on each side of a table and talk, and you can shake hands. You can’t give them anything; they can’t give you anything.

Are there lots of people paying visits?
Used to be [lots of people]. Now when I go out there, it’s rare that there’s more than four or five prisoners. Mostly, the visitors are family. Back in the olden days, when almost everybody could come to the visiting room, there would be 20 or 25 prisoners in the visiting room at one time. There just are not that many prisoners anymore who are allowed to come to the visiting room.

You said you started getting involved with the prison around the time of the Vietnam War, but did you know of Bucknell having any ties to the prison before that?
Oh yeah, lots of them. As a matter of fact, there was a time back in the ’50s when it was a low- security prison. Prisoners that were close to being released were allowed to come to campus and take courses. And then, during the Vietnam War, it was found that one of the prisoners was actually an FBI plant. I don’t know what they promised him, maybe early release, if he would report what Bucknell professors were saying about the Vietnam War. Well, that put an end to that program.

What other Bucknell stories do you recall?
I mentioned that prisoners, when they were close to their release date, used to be able to come and take courses. Also, Bucknell professors would go out and give courses. One of my favorite stories is that when Jimmy Hoffa was a prisoner here, Professor John Anderson of the economics department was giving a course in some aspect of economics, and Jimmy Hoffa was in his class. At one point in his class, John kept being interrupted by Jimmy Hoffa popping up to say this or that, and at one stage in the game, John said “Jimmy, sit down. You talk too much!” That might’ve been one of the biggest mistakes he ever made! As far as I know, there were no repercussions.

Let me tell you one other funny story. Back in the days when someone was in “the hole,” or not permitted to come to the visiting room, they would take PVS people down to the cell block. So they said, “[The man you’re visiting] isn’t permitted to come to the visiting room, so we’ll take you down to him.” Well, there’s this long [path] you’ve got to go down to get to the bowels of the institution. All this time, the captain who’s escorting me was telling me how dangerous this person was. He says, “All right, if you still insist on wanting to see him, he is on what we call three-man hold, which means that any time he is out of his cell, there have to be three men available to subdue him if necessary. So there will be three men right around the corner. And if anything happens I want you to go over and get in that corner, because I don’t want you to be hurt.” So I said, “Thank you, captain, but I’m not worried at all. You may have very good reasons for thinking this about this person, but he has asked me to come see him. And frankly, I’m not afraid of a thing.” So they brought him in. We probably visited for a half-hour, 45 minutes. At the end of the visit, we shook hands. Three men came from behind the wall, brought him back to his cell and brought me back to the visiting room. The next month, he’s still in the hole, so I asked to be taken down again, and by sheer luck, I drew the same captain to take me down there. We went to the hole. He said “We don’t have three men, and we can’t bring him out of the cell. So you go in the cell with him.” So they locked me in after telling me how dangerous he was, and again for 45 minutes or so we talked about his family and what his lawyer was doing with his case and whether the Pittsburgh Steelers might win the game. When I was ready to leave, they came and unlocked the cell and took me back up.

What is “the hole?”
It’s the isolation cell down in the basement. “The hole” is prison jargon, but it’s basically segregation. They have maybe three or four cells down there.

What do you normally discuss?
Most people in prison don’t get a chance to talk to another human being the way they can with me — and that’s what they all are, human beings. One of my last people whom I saw in the visiting room, he never told me what his crime was. You don’t ask. If they choose to tell you, that’s fine.

Most of the time what we talk about is quite routine. You come in, they talk about whatever they want to talk about, and you part. Then they get transferred and disappear into the crowd. Just recently, when I had to fill out the paperwork as a “new visitor” after a security-clearance issue, I had a question to answer: “Do you know or have you known a prisoner in the federal prison system? If so, provide name, registration number, location.” [I thought,] “There’s no way I can answer that question. Over the years I’ve seen well over 100 prisoners. I do not keep a record of name, number, etc. I have the name and number of everyone I’m visiting currently. So I lied [and said he didn’t know anyone.]” It’s sort of ridiculous. You cope with the situation.

Who was the most famous prisoner you met from the Lewisburg Penitentiary?
I guess the most famous person I knew after he was released from prison was Philip Berrigan, the Catholic priest [who was imprisoned for anti-Vietnam War activities]. Philip Berrigan told me that for all the stories you hear about Jimmy Hoffa, he had tremendous respect for the Catholic clergy. He said Jimmy Hoffa came up to him one time and said, “If you need anything, father, just let me know.”

You’ve been doing this for 39 years. What do you get out of this experience?
What do I get out of it? I make friends with people I would never meet under any other circumstances. They’re temporary friendships — they have to be. I think of that prisoner who hadn’t had a visitor in 28 years. I think of that guy who sent me running to the Bucknell library to answer his questions. I think of a man … I don’t think they could’ve run the prison without him. You lose contact with them, and that’s it. But what do I get out of it? A feeling that for just a few hours, you’ve been marginally helpful to somebody who most people in Lewisburg would just as soon forget.

— Sherri Kimmel