• 93°

Lamar State vice president overcomes near-death moment; strength guides college’s major expansion

Ben Stafford never lacked for confidence as a young man.

And why not?

Success seemed to come effortlessly and business was his area of expertise.

As one of five brothers growing up in a lower-middle-class blue collar family, he learned that hard work was the key to getting what he wanted. That life lesson motivated him to become a leader, a mentor, a mover of mountains.

It was clear, he was meant for great things.

But in a split second, Stafford’s life of easy success ended with an East Texas pine tree. In that moment, his invincibility crumbled and the lessons of perseverance and hard work — physically painful work — soon followed.

Lamar State

Stafford came to Lamar State College Port Arthur in June 2010 as a business consultant for the college’s Small Business Development Center. He brought his penchant for business as a tool to help Southeast Texans achieve the dream of owning their own businesses.

After serving in various capacities for the college over the next 11 years, he has now been named Vice President of Workforce Training and Continuing Education. The promotion is a nod to the immense contributions he has made to his department and the College.

His recent successes have resulted in the largest industrial craft training center in the region, which is in the building phase, and the largest commercial driver’s examination center in the state of Texas. That project is in the architectural stage with construction on the facility soon underway along U.S. 69 between Nederland and Beaumont.

As Stafford sits in his memento-laden office at the college, talking about the various details of these grant-funded projects, he is more excited than boastful, more thankful than self-aggrandizing.

He admits freely, though, that his younger self was certainly not short of bravado or pride. Today, though, he offers, with a calm resonance that only age and experience bring, that “life has a way of changing you.”

Education

Stafford, earned his associate’s degree in May 1981 from Lamar University in what was, at that point, the earliest iteration of Lamar Institute of Technology. At graduation, he found himself sitting among LU’s bachelor, master and doctoral graduates.

“I looked around and there was a large group earning their bachelor’s degree,” he said. “Then there was a smaller group getting their master’s degree. Finally, the tiniest group were those earning their doctoral degrees.

“I knew then that I wanted to be part of that tiny group.”

After going on to earn his bachelor’s degree in Social Work in 1985 and a master’s in the same area in 1987, he added a master’s equivalence in Public Health in 1988. A desire to get his career underway in earnest, though, sidelined his doctoral goal.

His education dovetailed perfectly into a career in healthcare. He worked as program director and administrator for various medical centers and hospitals, spending three years starting in 1993 as administrator for the Baptist Center for Behavioral Medicine in Beaumont.

He was living his career dream and once he met Laura, his personal fairy tale had its queen. In 1993, a princess arrived when they welcomed their daughter, Lauren.

Life was perfect.

Trail crash

March 18, 1995, was much like any other day except that Ben and a new psychiatrist at Baptist Hospital, Dr. Raul Isern, enjoyed a rare day away from their demanding schedules. Together, they decided to head to East Texas to ride three-wheelers in the woods.

As Stafford followed Isern down a sandy Big Thicket trail, he attempted a right turn, but the bike drifted.

“I shifted my weight to the left and bounced down on the left foot peg trying to drive that wheel into the dirt and get traction,” he remembers.

Instead, the bike flipped.

Stafford was thrown head-first into a tree, with the bike landing on him.

“I remember the muffler burning me,” he said.

He managed to push the three-wheeler off himself. By this time, Dr. Isern noticed his friend was missing and backtracked to find him. Once there, they sat for a minute, talking, and Stafford decided he had just had the wind knocked out of him.

Soon it was apparent, though, something far more critical had happened.

“I couldn’t get up,” he said.

Isern fetched a bottle of Sprite from his truck for Stafford, then left to make the drive to Jasper to get an ambulance. Paramedics arrived and carried Stafford a mile out of the woods to taken him to a Jasper hospital.

“I couldn’t move my right arm and I was in a great deal of pain,” Stafford remembers. “My concern was for Laura. I wanted to be taken to Baptist Hospital. The Jasper doctor asked if he could call Laura and I said he could as long as he told her I was OK and would meet her at Baptist.”

Only, that’s not the message the doctor would deliver. The news was grim.

“He told her that he was putting me on an ambulance to Beaumont but I would not be alive by the time I got there,” Stafford said.

The crash had devastated Stafford’s spine. There were compression fractures in his neck, three additional spinal fractures, his right arm was broken in multiple places, and his right wrist was fractured.

Most of his ribs were broken.

Once in the hospital in Beaumont, Stafford doesn’t remember much as his conscious thoughts faded in and out with the pain medication.

Eventually, he went home but for more than a year he lived his life from the horizontal vantage point of a hospital bed.

Pain & Perseverance

Anyone who meets Ben Stafford easily remembers him. His affable personality, a quick, broad smile and his signature handlebar mustache leave an endearing impression.

No one would know he lives every day with intense pain.

“I try not to whine; maybe I do, but I try my best to be positive every day,” he said.

Those positive vibes were born from a tenacity and core desire to overcome what for most would have been the end rather than the beginning.

From his hospital bed at home, he completed the work on his dissertation, the last step needed to complete his Doctor of Public Health. He became Dr. Ben Stafford in May 1996.

That same year, he joined Continucare Corporation in Miami as a regional director and just eight months later, became vice president of Compass Health Initiatives, also in Miami.

At Lamar State College Port Arthur, his grant-writing efforts have resulted in millions of dollars for the school and its workforce training programs.

“You have to live life the best you can,” he said. “It is never easy. There is pain every day but life is too precious to just give up.”

— Gerry L. Dickert is the public information coordinator at Lamar State College Port Arthur. He can be reached at dickertgl@lamarpa.edu.