“Clearing the mouth of the Columbia with a cold wind kicking up whitecaps around them, the Susquehanna lay over on her side and took the bone in her teeth, pointing her bows into the cold northern seas as if anxious for the green water that lay ahead.”
– “Sitka” by Louis L’Amour.
Ben Gonter is not the pilot of a ship but has piloted a plane and now wants with the same firm hand required of both challenging and adventuresome pursuits to help steer the direction for Lakewood as candidate for City Council.
While the editorial board of the Tacoma News Tribune rather cavalierly dismissed Gonter recently with a wave of the backhand, I sat down with him for an interview that reveals much of substance, as much passion and an intensity that matches whatever adverse wave or wind.
Q: Let’s say you’re an employer with a job opening. What do you look for in a prospective employee?
Ben: “Hard work ethic. That they show up, are passionate even in the interview; make good visual contact; have the highest possible qualifications for the job.”
Q: If you were a grantor, what would you want to see in an application for funding?
Ben: “Show me the plan. Show me how this will benefit others. In fact let me comment about what the TNT said about my suggestion for housing. The poor do not need houses demolished because where they live is unsightly but because the conditions we can and should provide them can considerably be improved.”
Q: I’m standing at one end of an I-beam, the kind of steel used in high rise construction. Its six inches high, six inches wide and 120-feet long. I offer you $100 if you can cross it – without stepping off either side – in less than two minutes. Would you do it?
Ben: “How high off the ground did you say it was?”
Q: It’s on the ground.
Ben: “Sure, I’d do it. I love a challenge.”
Q: Let’s suspend that I-beam 20 stories up between two towers, each end attached to a narrow ledge and I lean out the window in one tower and holler to you in the window at the opposite end that if you cross that I-beam in less than two minutes – without stepping off either side (laughter) – I’ll give you $100. Would you do it?
Ben: “No, the risk is greater than the gain.”
Q: $1 Million, unmarked bills, IRS won’t touch it? By the way, did I mention the wind is blowing rain sideways at 60 mph and there’s a slight bow in the I-beam?
Ben: “No you didn’t mention it and no I still wouldn’t do it. The risk is too great, the reward is not within reason.”
Q: What’s really important to you Ben?
Ben: “Family values, happiness, my reputation, friends, a challenge.”
Q: So give me the name of one of your family who you really value.
Ben: “My uncle Gary Gonter.”
Q: Ok, no more mister nice guy. I’ve got Gary by the hair and if you don’t cross this I-beam in two minutes, I drop him. Would you do it?
Ben: “Well sure. No question. My family means everything to me.”
Q: Tell me about your family.
Ben: “If there’s one thing about which I will not budge it’s how much my father Bob Gonter, who’s gone now, and Gary have meant to me all my life. When my dad retired from the Air Force he joined Gary’s Bandstand Music which branched off when the two cofounded Gonter’s Music which became one of the biggest music stores in the country located right here in Lakewood.
“I grew up in a very loving family, a very successful family and I’m very proud of my heritage, the Gonter name, as my uncle Gary is proud of me. Gary backs me 100-percent. I took guitar lessons and Yamaha keyboard lessons at the age of five. I was very involved in Lakewood sports and I think their good business skills, honesty, integrity, being well-liked and reputation have filtered down to me.
“When I struggled with obtaining my pilot’s instrument rating – being able to take off and land in zero visibility – it was my dad’s encouragement – he had his commercial pilot’s license – to finish what I started.
“’You never want to quit,’ dad said, ‘or you’ll always be a quitter.’
“The Gonter family now has three generations of aviators.”
Q: You’re an educator too. Special Ed in fact. Why?
Ben: “I taught third grade at Oakbrook and have now been 20 years in Special Education where twice – 1999 and 2001 – I was teacher of the year in the Franklin Pierce School District. I think I’ve learned more from my students than maybe they have from me: unconditional love; how they face struggles – motor skills, how they carry things let alone themselves – stuff we take for granted. It’s gratifying when years go by and a young man will approach me at the Puyallup Fair for example and proudly introduce himself as my former student. Another of my former students has joined me in going door-to-door helping in my campaign.
“Those are some of the reasons Special Ed is just that: special.”
Q: What would you say to teachers today?
Ben: “I know how hard you work. I know how often you’re not appreciated by the public. You’ve got loans to pay off and if I had the authority you teachers – and firemen and policemen – would never have your retirement taken away. I will always be an advocate for education and for teachers.
“In fact my children someday will go – not might go but will go – to University. Then they can be an artist, or musician, or educator or bum. But they will be an educated bum.”
Q: If I understand correctly, while at PLU you earned a 4.0, have three Bachelor’s Degrees, speak three languages, earned your Masters and are at the Ph.D. level of study. All that being said – which is saying a lot – what makes not a good teacher but an incredible teacher?
Ben: “Be holistically intelligent to really shine, that is know your stuff – including the sharing of trivia, pop-culture to make learning fun – but you must also have a common core with your students, that is love them unconditionally. They – all of them – have purpose. You must enjoy your students. An embrace and a hug are education too.”
Ben: “Music, flying, traveling, learning new languages, hiking, swimming. Swimming is my favorite sport.”
Q: Why should people vote for you?
Ben: “I’ve lived in Lakewood 45 years. It’s my city. It’s your city. I want us to be able to take pride in the pristineness of our beautiful city. I am passionate about our city.”
Q: One more. When elected to Lakewood City Council, how will you know the will and the wants of the people you represent, those who elected you?
Ben: “As I have knocked on your door to get your vote, I will knock on your door to keep your vote. I work for you. I want to be user-friendly.”