Ben E. Lewis - BYU Devotional

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Alcohol experience shared by Jeffrey R. Holland in a BYU devotional

For more than twenty-five years Ben E. Lewis was the executive vice-president of Brigham Young University.  He is now retired.  I recently asked him to do something very important for the university for which I wanted to give him a token of modest compensation.  He refused the money.  I argued with him and told him I was the president and he had to do what I said.  He said he was retired and that he didn't have to do anything I said.  I shoved the money at him and he shoved it back at me.  We argued and then he told me this story.

He said that following his undergraduate years at BYU (where he was a student body president, by the way) he had received an Alfred P. Sloan fellowship for graduate work at the University of Denver.  As part of the Sloan fellowship, he and a handful of other students were regularly taken out into the Colorado business community to meet leaders and executives, and enjoy rather high-level exchange with them.  One particular professor always took the group, and they spent many hours together.

After each day's work with these business leaders, the professor would always stop somewhere for a beer with the students.  Brother Lewis always ordered a soft drink.  That led to a lot of conversation over many weeks, and the professor came to introduce Ben everywhere they went--at every business, at every school, to every leader, and to every executive-this way:  "This is Ben Lewis," he would say.  "He's a Mormon and he doesn't drink beer."  Everywhere and with everyone it was always the same,  "This is Ben Lewis.  He's a Mormon and he doesn't drink beer."

Over the course of many months that phrase was repeated dozens and dozens and dozens of times. "This is Ben Lewis.  He's a Mormon and he doesn't drink beer."

One day after a field trip to Fort Collins, the professor wheeled the group up to a pit stop of some kind where, of course, he and the others ordered their beer.  Except this time the professor ordered two beers. Ben asked him why.  He said, "Because it’s my birthday and you are going to have a beer with me."

"No," Ben said, "I can't have a beer with you, but I do wish you a happy birthday."

"You will have a beer with me," his teacher said.  "At least you must have one sip.  It is very important to me, and I ask it of you this one rime." And he put a dollar bill on the table.  "Drink one sip of beer and that dollar is yours."  Brother Lewis said he didn't want to give offense but, no, he would not be able to drink the beer, even for the dollar.

That conversation, with some increasing tension, escalated until the man had placed $50 on the counter.  He was obviously intent on having Ben participate in this unusual birthday party, and he was in a position to do a student considerable academic harm if he were so inclined.

Brother Lewis wondered what to do.  He did not want to offend a man who had been particularly kind to him.  It was now a very awkward situation, and virtually everyone in the restaurant was aware of some difficulty over at their corner table.  One sip would soothe the situation.  Surely the Lord would know the integrity of his heart in this matter.  Certainly no permanent damage would be done.

Furthermore, $50 in 1941 meant a lot to a working student who wasn't at all sure where his next meal was coming from.

There, a long way from home, as he mulled over this difficult situation and wondered how to handle the problem, words so clear and loud spoken directly to his brain nearly startled him from the table.  As audibly as I speak to you, Brother Lewis said he heard the words from an unseen source.  "This is Ben Lewis.  He's a Mormon, and he drinks beer."

Then he said there in my office,  "I didn't drink the beer, and I can't take the money.  I'm a Mormon. This is Brigham Young University.  I love it with all my heart. I have given my life to it.  I want to give more.  I can't take the money."

May I say it again one last time.  "A person's greatness is measured not by his personal wealth or his professional standing, but by the strength of his devotion to principle ...by the values that ...define his character."