MARQUETTE - Many will be saddened today to open this section of The Mining Journal and not see the familiar smiling face of Ben Mukkala, accompanied by a column that would, among other things, remind us how precious life is.
Even on a dreary Monday afternoon, Ben's quick wit and laughter were not dimmed by the weather as he and his wife Dorothy shared stories of Ben's Air Force days, his start in writing and his and Dorothy's life in the Upper Peninsula.
Ben was born in Marquette in 1929, at the start of the Great Depression.
Ben Mukkala is shown at his Harvey home. The longtime Mining Journal columnist and local author recently discontinued writing due to failing health. He and wife, Dorothy, are enjoying their time together. (Journal File Photo)
Mukkala is shown outside his home. Ben and Dorothy enjoy the variety of wildlife that visit their yard year round, a topic he often wrote about in his weekly Journal columns. (Journal File Photo)
Mukkala is seen in this Vietnam War photo with an unknown maintenance officer. (Journal file photos)
"That's how I started life. Being taught as a child that you didn't waste anything That resulted in a bigger belly than I needed, but I got rid of it eventually," Ben chuckled.
As he moved on into his young adult years, Ben worked in local garages. That is, until 1950 when the Korean War came along and Ben was drafted. Knowing he didn't want to go into the Marine Corps, Ben along with two friends decided to join the U.S. Air Force.
"I'd seen John Wayne fighting in the mud in (the film) 'Sands of Iwo Jima' and thought that wasn't for me."
This decision led to a life-long passion for flying. Ben flew an assortment of fighter planes and jet bombers in both the Korean and Vietnam wars.
Once he got out of the service, Ben was contacted by Ball State University in Indiana, which informed him that if he attended the school for two semesters, they would give him a degree. He decided to attend the university and received his degree, and soon after returned to Marquette where he acquired a job in real estate. It was there that he met his wife, Dorothy, who was working for the same real estate business. The couple hit it off and were married in 1987.
Between the two of them, Ben and Dorothy, who both had been married prior to meeting one another, have 10 kids and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The couple spent a period of time living along the Yellow Dog River and it was during that time that Ben formed an idea.
"I remember thinking, '"You know, if I could write about some of the experiences and enjoyment we have living up here and have people enjoy it half as much as we enjoy doing it, maybe that'd be something.'"
Ben had gotten his first taste of writing while in the service, when occasionally they needed someone to write articles about the squadrons. Once he and Dorothy were settled down in the Upper Peninsula, Ben wrote a four-part series that highlighted the experiences of living in the U.P. through all four seasons. It was published in the Michigan Out-of-Doors Magazine and received positive reviews.
"People just loved reading his work, so he decided to send an article to The Mining Journal," Dorothy explained.
At first, Ben wrote occasionally for the paper. As time passed however, his columns became more popular and eventually found a regular weekly spot. Each week, Ben has entertained readers with stories of living by the bayou in Harvey, surrounded by many feathered and furry guests such as geese, foxes and other critters. He's shared his memories of his service in the U.S. Air Force and he's written on simply enjoying life.
In addition to writing weekly columns, Ben has penned six books. He recalled that often when selling his books at local events, people wanted to purchase his work via credit card, which Ben didn't accept.
"I said to them '"You want a book, take a book. Just send me the check,'" I think there has only been twice that someone hasn't sent the money, and I like to think that they just forgot."
This is how Ben has lived his life. Believing in people.
"The best way to make people responsible is to give them responsibility. I've had good luck treating people this way."
According to Dorothy, both she and Ben have had a full life together and harbor no regrets.
"We've completed our bucket list... a lot of people don't get to do all the things we've gotten the chance to do."
When asked about his decision to discontinue writing for The Mining Journal due to his health, Ben and Dorothy spoke openly.
"Around July 8, I just started feeling uncomfortable. That brought on lots of tests and poking and prodding by the doctors," Ben said.
Those tests revealed that Ben had esophageal cancer and a stomach tumor. His options were explained to him in two ways: rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments and major surgery, which could give him a 30 percent chance of extending his life 2 to 5 years. His other option was palliative care at home, with a predicted 3 to 6 months left.
"Life to me is about quality, not quantity. I've lived a good life full of family, friends and love," Ben said emphatically.
Dorothy agreed and added that they have been overwhelmed with letters, cards and emails from people close to Ben and Dorothy, or those who simply enjoyed one of his articles or books, who applaud his decision to finish his life the way he chooses.
In conclusion, Ben had a few words for those reading: "People should get out and do the things they enjoy doing. You go through life once. There ain't no revolving door."
Abbey Hauswirth can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 240.