Finding Their Way

Ben Weber and his sister, Meagan, lost their father in 2003. Nearly seven years later, they lost their mother. The two decided then that Meagan, just six years older than Ben, would become his legal guardian. From there, a special relationship between the two developed. Meagan was both the sister and mother figure in Ben’s life. She stood by his side during senior night, Sept. 28, 2012, at which parents joined their senior sons on Raider Field in Huntingburg before the start of Southridge’s final home football game.

Story by Brendan Perkins
Photos by Dave Weatherwax

Meagan (Weber) Bayer dove right in to underwear duty.

Assisting younger brother and 2013 Southridge High School graduate Ben Weber with getting situated in his dorm room at Indiana State University last month, Meagan, 25, rolled open the top dresser drawer and began stowing away Ben’s clothes. To the point of working up a sweat, she milled around elsewhere with the other work that needed accomplished as she helped bunk the beds, picked a sticker off a comforter while smoothing it onto the bed and collapsed empty cardboard boxes.

A photograph of Lynne Weber-Messmer and her two children, Ben and Meagan, sits on the dresser in Ben’s bedroom at his home.

The sisterly duties on college move-in day typically aren’t taxing — maybe snap some photos, possibly be the pillow courier and stand aside while mom, dad and brother do the unpacking and the heavy lifting. But the underwear, socks and compression shorts weren’t going to put themselves away. And as Ben floated around the room tending to other duties, Meagan was the one to do it.

Their teamwork — and self-sufficiency — is already down to a science.

At an age when Ben’s peers are just discovering adult freedoms and people Meagan’s age begin encountering adult problems, the Huntingburg siblings are virtual grown-ups already. Meagan assumed legal guardianship of Ben after the death of both their parents — Norm Jr. died of a heart attack 10 years ago, and Lynne Weber-Messmer died in 2010. The subsequent years have been almost like a feel-good movie script come to life: The sister-turned-guardian/mother hen turns into the protectorate of an 18-year-old brother who likely boasts the maturity and wherewithal to make it on his own, anyway.

No sort of pamphlet or how-to DVD exists when it comes to finding your way after losing both parents before official induction into the real world. On the fly but melded together through strength and faith, Meagan and Ben have the tricky game largely figured out.

“One of the things I’ve always said, for me and Meagan, God wouldn’t have put us through this if he didn’t know that we could handle it,” Ben says. “And it sounds weird, but I wouldn’t want it to happen to any of my friends. It’s not that I take it hard, it’s not that I take it great. But it’s that I can put up with it. Some friends, they wouldn’t be able to do it, just because they can’t handle some situations.

“You can either grab life by the horns and say, ”˜Hey, look, I’m going to go with what I had intended for myself, and more beyond what my parents had intended for me, or I can sit back and try to let life come to me and do nothing about it and feel sorry for (myself).’ It does make you grow up.
Either you grow up or you shut up.”

There was no time to pause, either, when it came to tackling life’s tough questions on their own.

Before his freshman year of high school, Ben didn’t know the first thing about getting stains out of his clothing. But since his mother died, he has had to learn that as well as take on several other household responsibilities. Ben slung his comforter fresh from the dryer over his shoulder as he transferred more clothes into the dryer at his home July 22.

In March of Ben’s freshman year of high school, Lynne succumbed to a series of strokes caused by moyamoya disease, a rare affliction that restricts arteries in the brain. Family friends lent support, flooding the Webers’ home with flowers, scores of sympathy gifts like wind chimes and stepping stones, and more food than Meagan and Ben could handle before they had to throw much of it away.

After finishing dinner with Meagan and her husband, Justin Bayer, Ben worked on filling out a scholarship application before paying some bills April 15. Ben earned enough scholarship money to pay for his tuition his freshman year at Indiana State University where he is studying financial services and certified financial planning.

Their network of support was expansive and still is, but only a select few could provide what Ben needed.

All three sets of their grandparents are still alive — Lynne’s parents are nearby in Holland and Norm’s parents are both remarried — but with them aging into their 70s, Meagan considered the uncertainty of having them assume custodial duties. Achieving harmony under the same roof was never an issue since Justin Bayer, Meagan’s husband of almost two years, was on board with the plan of two siblings who “never really fought” growing up, by Meagan’s account.

“I really didn’t give anyone else an option (to take guardianship),” she says. “I just said that he was going to live with me. I guess I thought it was the right thing to do at the time.

“It definitely changed, because you’re not just a sister anymore. You have to play that friend/sister and almost parent role. It’s tough, trying to mesh all that together and still be a sibling.
Sometimes, I don’t know how we ever did it, but somehow we made it all work without killing each other. ... I guess we just made it work because we had to.”

Meagan’s motherly nagging surfaces only when necessary, like when Ben chronically neglected washing his football, basketball and baseball jerseys prior to gamedays. But while Justin accomplishes most of the cleaning around the house and about 90 percent of the cooking falls to Meagan, Ben’s no slouch when it comes to assisting. In 2011, when they moved about three miles from their childhood home near Holland into their new house in rural Huntingburg, Ben started paying the water bill for the sake of having a regular responsibility. And his dirty laundry? It was all up to him to make it clean.

Family is still close by, and Meagan talks to her grandmother Barbara Bilderback almost daily on her drive to work at the Toyota plant in Princeton, where she’s an early symptom intervention team leader, dealing with health safety and wellness.

Generally, though, scratching off duties from the daily to-do list is a practice of self-discovery.
They’ve done everything, including help plan both of their parents’ funerals. Ben filed his own tax returns this year and filled out the exhaustive Free Application for Federal Student Aid form on his own. From attaining a marriage license to selling a house and all the titles and deeds and frills that go along with it, Meagan already has deciphered those to the point that she and Justin are a resource to friends who are beginning to have big-boy questions of their own.

Then a senior at Southridge, Ben joined his fellow students in sharing their displeasure for an official’s call during the Feb. 6 girls basketball sectional game between the Raiders and North Posey at Buechler Arena in Ferdinand.

For both siblings, the growing-up game has been cramped. Before introductions for Ben’s senior night in basketball in February, Meagan and Justin sat in a bottom row of bleachers at Huntingburg Memorial Gym, bracketed by parents of the other seniors. As everyone waited, Meagan and her husband talked, mingled and laughed along with the rest of the parents.

Meagan chuckled at her brother as he struggled with his belt while she helped him in their Huntingburg home to get ready for commencement May 17.

They blended in, since Meagan sometimes feels she has more in common with the baby boomer crowd than with friends her own age.

With her friends, “some things are hard to relate to, just because they’re more worried about things that are really minor to me or irrelevant,” Meagan says. “They can just pick up the phone and call their mom, or their mom does this or that for them, or their dad’s putting air in their tires or washing their car for them.”

Anyone in need of a good scrub always could consult Ben, whose meticulousness is exceeded perhaps only by his fierce independence.

About 15 minutes before departure the morning he left for college, Ben lurked in the garage as Meagan’s voice rang from inside.

“Ben, you got everything out of the house? Your lights are still on in your room,” she calls.

“I’ll go check,” he promises, though it’s obvious his attention is glued on spot-cleaning the seats of his Volkswagen Jetta and stuffing extra cloths into his cargo shorts so he can wash his car himself while at college; a commercial carwash just won’t do.

As a moneymaking venture, Ben launched his own car detailing service a few years ago. The grass-roots operation swelled to around 50 customers, and proof of satisfied consumers is housed on a legal pad within a black binder, where he’s neatly printed “People To Detail” and kept inventory of each customer, some of whom have turned over multiple vehicles for Ben to scour free of dust, dirt and crumbs.

That’s where he and Meagan clash. She’s hastily efficient, and he’s the deliberate perfectionist who was almost always the last one out of the basketball locker room after games, as he’d also take everything home from his basketball locker most nights to prevent dirty clothes from breeding.
Ben’s punctilious tendencies helped grow his brand when it came to car care, as people still hound him to primp their cars even though he’s out of the business now since the time and the space needed to accommodate all the requests began exceeding the bounds of a one-man operation; instead, he worked 70 hours a week this summer for a lawn-mowing service.

Inspecting his own Jetta, Ben peers into a crevice near the intersection of the dashboard and driver’s side door. There’s dust buildup there, he insists. The kind that detailing shops don’t find.
And the reason that detailing a single car could take him up to six hours. (“Longer than that,” Meagan even argues.)

Both of Ben’s parents, Norm Jr. and Lynne, are buried in the cemetery behind the church they attended, Zoar United Methodist Church. Ben still attends the church and tries to visit their grave, or at least drive through the cemetery, each Sunday after he attends services. He visited the grave site May 12.

“The hardest part for me is finding a stopping point,” he says. “There’s always something more you can do.”

The same TLC is directed toward Ben’s other vehicle, his Jeep, which he’d commonly wash after driving it just a few miles to his grandparents’ home. The Jeep receives special treatment for a reason. It remains a symbol of his parents, since after Norm’s death, Lynne traded in his truck and bought the Jeep for Meagan to drive.

Ben chooses to sit in the same pew where his parents sat at Zoar United Methodist Church and often declines requests from other church members for him to sit with them.

It’s got more than 100,000 miles, and by Ben’s plans, its lifespan has just started.

“If I can drive it till I’m 40, I will,” he says.

At times, the Jeep also has served as the only social diversion Ben needs.

Before he began dating Mady Grundhoefer, a 2013 Forest Park High School graduate and his girlfriend of a year and seven months, Ben was perfectly content spending a Friday night home alone washing his Jeep or relaxing with Meagan and Justin and listening to music. Solitude spooks most teenagers, but not Ben. When he attends services at Zoar United Methodist Church, he’s the only person in the pew at the back of the sanctuary. When invited to sit with others, Ben politely declines.

He’s fine in the back, because that’s where his parents used to sit. And he salutes them on the drive back from church, visiting the grave site where Norm and Lynne are buried side by side as was their predetermined arrangement even as Lynne remarried after Norm’s death. Meagan and Ben keep occasional contact with their former stepfather, Stan Messmer, whom Ben lived with for two years before Lynne died.

“Sometimes, (friends) are like, ”˜Why are you so serious about this? Why can’t you just have fun?’ And it’s hard to sometimes,” Ben says. “I can’t get out of my bubble of what’s already happened to me in my life to make me want to do that. ... Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m a teenager.”

He shuns traditional rap for artists like Andy Mineo, a Christian rapper. And underage drinking unnerves Ben, who says he’s never drunk a drop of alcohol and doesn’t know if he will even on his 21st birthday. “It’s just not something that strikes me as being fun,” he says.

His convictions are unimpeachable, and his humility is steadfast. From the honor roll to awards for courage, Ben has sometimes collected honors that Meagan doesn’t know about until she reads it in the newspaper or hears it from someone else. But Ben operates with a personality that’s anything but distant.

During conversations, he maintains eye contact like a motivational speaker would. His crusher of a handshake feels more like you’re meeting the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And his sometimes wacky sense of humor can surprise.

Justin King, then a sophomore, left, looked over Ben’s shoulder as he thumbed through his Bible looking for some passages to read to classmates at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting the morning of May 9 at Southridge High School. Ben was president of the school’s FCA chapter during his senior year.

When a teacher or coach discusses a form and instructs that it needs to be signed by parents, Ben derives delight from the awkwardness he creates when he pipes up with a question.

“What if I don’t have parents?” he’d innocently deadpan as everyone in his radius squirmed. The gig became uncomfortable and regular enough that many of his teachers and coaches began using the “parent/guardian” catchall.

After Ben spent more than a half-hour posing for pictures with various friends, family members and classmates, Meagan asked him to pose for one final picture before leaving Memorial Gym on May 17.

He’s just as likely to locate friends amid any demographic. His girlfriend’s mother, Lori Grundhoefer, recalls that when Ben and Mady first began talking, Ben would spend as much or more time chatting with Lori as he did with people his own age when they saw each other at sporting events.
When Mady’s twin sister, Megan, needs advice, Ben’s her best counselor, Lori says. And Lori expected the neighbor kids to miss Ben as much as anyone when he went off to college, since he regularly jumped into playtime and even shot baskets with them the day of the prom while dolled up in his tuxedo.

His leadership and perseverance won over his compatriots, too. After the basketball season last winter, a few teammates text-messaged him and revealed that although they never mentioned it before, Ben was one of the reasons they kept playing basketball. Perry Central extinguished Southridge’s season in last season’s sectional semifinals and Ben, never bashful about emoting, sobbed harder than perhaps anyone.

But at his core, this is a kid who regularly carried an investment book or magazine around the Southridge halls and who has 20 finance books on his bedroom shelf. The gloom didn’t last for Ben, who seems like he’s 18 going on 40.

“The next day, he’s out at my house and he’s talking about investing and that he can’t wait to get more in college and studying this and moving on with his career,” says Jeff Tooley, a Southridge assistant basketball coach and vice president and a financial consultant at Hilliard Lyons in Jasper.
“Where a lot of people would be (disappointed) — and not that he wasn’t heartbroken and upset — but he’s so grown up that (he realized), ”˜OK, I had a good run and now it’s time to move on to the next phase of my life.’ For an 18-year-old kid, that’s pretty impressive.”

Indeed, “he’s different,” Tooley said.

Different because he’s not too cool to cry. While being introduced during senior night for basketball in February, he linked arms with Meagan and Justin and used his sleeve to wipe away tears in one of those moments where missing mom and dad stings the most.

Different because when he takes a joyride into town or around the countryside, he takes notice of houses and thinks about what kind of home he wants to own when he’s older.

During Ben’s senior year at Southridge, he played three sports: football, basketball and baseball. Each senior night served as a dual reminder that another sport was coming to an end and that his parents were not there to witness it. Meagan comforted her emotional brother as he was introduced on senior night for football.

Different because he completes a personal budget every month. He’s got the process down to five minutes.

Different because on his first day on campus at ISU, he seemed less interested in attending one of the social functions of Welcome Weekend and instead more pumped up about finding a church within walking distance of his dorm.

“I’m asking him, ”˜What’s the scenery?’ ”˜What’s the girls look like up at Indiana State?’ And he’s talking about meeting the dean and getting internships,” Tooley says.

B

Ben took a stack of his clothes from his brother-in-law as Justin and Meagan helped Ben move into his dorm room at Indiana State University in Terre Haute on
Aug. 17.

en could have become just about anything, including a handyman as Norm was — Ben fixed Mady’s toilet based solely on the foggy memory of tagging along as dad worked. He could have been a college basketball player, as the 10th-leading scorer in SHS history once considered extending his hoops career. But Meagan figures that when their mother died, it altered Ben’s lens about his future, nudging him further toward the pragmatic path of business school.

The financial realm long enchanted Ben, further wooing him when, with Tooley’s help, he began investing his money after his junior year of high school. Even though he was already secure financially for his first year of college, including a full-tuition 21st Century Scholarship to his credit, Ben applied for and was accepted as a Gongaware Scholar within ISU’s business program. He still plans to complete the litany of scholarship requirements — which include a 21⁄2-hour meeting every Thursday night — even though he won’t receive the scholarship money on top of what his 21st Century stipend pays for. It’s all in the name of gaining experience, networking and the prospect of job placement.

Were it not for Meagan, his college path probably wouldn’t have even unfurled this way.

Intent for the longest time on the revered Kelley School of Business, Ben long envisioned himself at Indiana University. When it came to decision time, Meagan sat him down and made him put pencil to paper with a pros-and-cons list.

The exercise revealed that what was tempting Ben about IU was the campus, and nothing school-related. He reconsidered. Sycamores it was.

All he needed was a little clarity, courtesy of someone who still considers herself more a sister than a meddling mother.

“Sometimes he tells me that I’m being his mom, so he reminds me,” Meagan says. “Once it’s all said and done and he’s off to college, I think it’ll be more like a brother-sister relationship.”

Indeed, in the few weeks Ben’s been at college, Meagan doesn’t suffocate him by needing daily updates of how class went, if he used his umbrella and if he’s remembering to take those vitamins daily. Likewise, Ben doesn’t blow up Meagan’s phone when it comes to other issues his fellow real-world rookies are confronting, like opening a bank account or knowing when the washing machine calls for hot, warm or cold.

No, Ben doesn’t need those sorts of assists. Under Meagan’s immediate eye and under the far-off watch of parents he still aims to please, Ben’s been all grown up for a while.

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.




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