The Making of a Visionary: Benjamin Statler’s Story
August 28, 2012|
By Marta Tankersley
Growing up in rural Monongalia County, life on the farm taught budding entrepreneur Benjamin Statler life lessons that would one day improve the lives of people throughout the Mountain State. He spent his childhood in Daybrook, which has a population of only 171 according to the 2010 census, but that little hamlet nestled in the hills produced one of the state’s most prolific philanthropists who, along with his high school sweetheart and wife, Jo, is responsible for the largest single monetary contribution to West Virginia University (WVU) in its 150-year history.
The Statlers’ $34 million gift will be allocated toward building an advanced research and development facility for the newly named Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources on the Evansdale Campus, the endowment of three energy research academic chairs and 25 engineering undergraduate scholarships and the funding of graduate research fellows.
“I feel that WVU’s engineering school and WVU as a whole should be recognized as the energy engineering college of the country,” Ben says. “Because of all our natural resources and everything we have in the state, we should be able to take full advantage of that in an environmentally and ecologically friendly way.” The Statlers know it will require hard work and extensive research but are determined to do whatever it takes to attain that goal, and they believe their monetary gift has the potential to make a real impact.
Climbing the Corporate Ladder
Ben feels that while higher education is what keeps individuals competitive in the global market, education is not limited to a college degree. “It starts from the time you are born,” he says. “You learn every day from family, friends and the community.” Throughout his years in corporate America, he also had in the back of his mind thoughts of his early life at his father’s side where he learned that a man has responsibilities and that in order to be successful he must recognize that it requires hard work, diligence and perseverance.
Although he credits his father’s entrepreneurial spirit and his mother’s devotion for his life philosophies, Ben remembers helping care for his family’s large farms and thinking that he wanted to do something more when he grew up. Already exhibiting an aptitude for engineering while in high school, he thought a degree in agricultural engineering would be his most logical educational option, but applying for a summer job just before graduation in 1969 led him down a different path entirely.
Ben accepted a position in the Pursglove Mine of Consolidation Coal Company, now known as CONSOL Energy. The Pursglove Mine was located near his family farm in Pentress and also near where his father worked as a welder for CONSOL. While Ben had anticipated work above ground, he soon found that he was scheduled for underground work. As it turned out, Ben enjoyed working underground so much that he changed his degree to mining engineering, and he continued to work for CONSOL for the next 30 years.
Ben began his career working in the mines as a laborer, doing various jobs and whatever needed to be done. Through these different jobs he gained invaluable experience and learned all aspects of the industry, soon setting his sights on upper management. Able to move quickly through the ranks at CONSOL, he was a mine superintendent by the time he was 26, an assistant vice president by 28 and a vice president by 32. Ben retired from CONSOL Energy in 1999 as a senior vice president and was responsible for half of the company’s operations.
It was then that he made the career move he considers his greatest success—the purchase of United States Steel’s mining subsidiary, which he named PinnOak Resources. Under Ben’s leadership and with a management team that included former CONSOL executives, the new company was able to change its financial structure and operating procedures in order for the new leadership to turn the company around and resell it. “It was much more successful than I had ever dreamed,” Ben says of the entrepreneurial endeavor, “and that was very rewarding.”
Ben married his high school sweetheart, Jo, the year they graduated from high school, and the couple started their family in a little 10’x50’ mobile home where they welcomed their children, Julie and Ben II, into the world. Jo had worked as a secretary at the WVU School of Dentistry prior to having their children. Ben continued to work the midnight shift at the mine while carrying a full class schedule at WVU until he graduated in 1973 with a degree in mining engineering.
Balancing work and family can be challenging, but for the Statlers there was never a question of keeping priorities in check. They operated under the premise that in order to best provide for their family they had to be dedicated both to the children and to working hard at their careers. Ben feels that his biggest success in life is his family and the relationships he’s built with them. “Being able to have those relationships over the years with grandparents, parents, children and now grandchildren is success to me.”
A Legacy of Philanthropy
“We have always had a desire to do more in West Virginia because we grew up here,” Ben says of the couple’s charitable contributions to the Mountain State. “While we are very, very committed to doing something to help, we don’t just do things to be doing them.” As visionaries, the Statlers see their $34 million donation to WVU as seed money that is not strictly for use by the engineering school. The couple hopes that there will be collaboration between all the colleges at WVU as there exists a need for legal, medical and business school partnerships to accomplish the energy goals of the state and the nation. They also see the possibility of the collaboration expanding beyond just WVU to the universities of the Big 12 Conference through WVU’s education and athletics departments.
Ben and Jo are no strangers to philanthropy and have a reputation for giving back to their state. In 2007, they contributed $1.2 million to the Monongalia County Board of Education to build a gymnasium at Clay Battelle High School, their alma mater, which was named the Statler Wilson Gymnasium in honor of their parents who also graduated from the high school. When Jo’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1974 and lost her battle in 1992, the couple was inspired to help other women beat the illness. Through discussions with the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center, they learned that there was a need for digital mammography in the underserved parts of the state. The couple acted to resolve the problem so that needed testing could be done statewide. “Our funds provided a digital mammographic machine in a bus to go around the state and provide testing,” Ben says. “So far the bus has been used to screen more than 3,000 women.” The mobile testing unit, called Bonnie’s Bus, is named in honor of Jo’s mother, Bonnie Wells Wilson.
The Statlers have received much recognition for their generous gifts to West Virginia and its citizens. “I’ve been flattered, honored and humbled by every award I’ve ever received,” Ben says. Although he can’t say one form of recognition is more important than another, he is extremely happy to have been named as a WVU Distinguished Alumni. “When I was working the midnight shift, all I wanted to do was graduate,” he says. “I never dreamed of being a distinguished alumni. I just wanted to be an alumnus.”
These days, the Statlers enjoy the fruits of their labor the same way most of us would. They often go boating, play golf, travel and spend time with their friends and family. Ben doesn’t hold ownership in coal property or the coal industry anymore, but he is always evaluating investment opportunities and has a greatly diversified portfolio. He enjoys watching his three grandsons grow and can see talents in all of them. Chips off the old block? Perhaps.