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Alabama People: Ben Russell

One of Alabama’s most generous philanthropists is Ben Russell, the chairman of Russell Lands, Inc., the state’s largest recreational development company, and grandson of Russell Corporation founder Benjamin Russell. He and his wife, Luanne, founded the Children’s Harbor on Lake Martin in 1989, where seriously ill children and their families can come for rest and restoration in a 66-acre picturesque and safe environment. In 2001, they opened the Children’s Harbor Family Center in Birmingham that provides counseling, education and other services for chronically sick children and their families. The center is connected to the state-of-the-art Benjamin Russell Hospital for Children, to which the Russells donated $25 million. Alabama Living got to chat with Russell recently at his office in Alexander City. – Lenore Vickrey

A lot of folks know you for the philanthropic work you’ve done. What motivates you to give back?

I’ve thought about that. Other than that it sort of seems natural, I told Jim Ray (longtime former director of Children’s Harbor) that only a thin veil separates those fortunate of us from those who are the opposite…. Fortunate people are able to have more things than they can get around to. I enjoy children, of course, and I relate to children as everybody does. I’m just fortunate to be able to do that.

What entity have you been most involved with?

That would have to be Children’s Harbor. We planned for it to be a recreational center for children because the site lent itself to that. It’s (become) an activity center for numerous child care groups, and then of course came the Family Center in Birmingham. Now with the new hospital, everybody gets to walk right past our doors. Obviously there are needs that are  interminable. You can’t do half of what needs to be done.

But you’re doing so much!

Well, it’s been a blessing. People have come around to support it. It’s a thing that will just go on. That’s what I think is really an accomplishment.

I wonder what kind of state Alabama would be without people like you.

Oh, I think they’d get along fine.

At Children’s Hospital, you and you wife have been quite generous in building a wing there named for your grandfather. How did that evolve?

I’d been on the board up there and that’s the greatest organization you’d want to work with, and the most appreciated. Everywhere I’d go, people would speak to me about that. That’s how we knew our counseling service was needed, because you know when kids are sick, there are family problems, the dad loses his job, and so on. And for indigent people who are just barely getting by, it’s crucial. At any rate, our involvement through them was a natural.

And your grandson was treated there.

Yes, after the new hospital had been open two or three months, Benjamin (Hendrix) was diagnosed with lymphoma. He’s an only child of our only child (their daughter, Adelia). But luckily he’s completely over it and has turned into a fine young man. He holds a number of state records in powerlifting. He’s a small person, but he’s the strongest guy on the football team (at Benjamin Russell High School). He worked up here in the summer, physical type work. He’s all fired up about football.

Speaking of football, I know you’re a big Alabama football fan.

I went to Mercer University first, then Alabama. We go to about three games a year now. Unlike our competitors, we claim not to get “Auburn-iacal” about that! It’s predominantly Auburn fans around here and some people are pretty serious about that. Russell supports Auburn a lot. It’s a good relationship. But I just love to tell Auburn jokes!

(To cover all the bases, under construction on the Russell Lands property is a clock tower named “Benny Chimes at Timer’s Corner.”)

I understand you’re also a pilot, a painter and an author.
My mother was an artist. I like to sketch trees, that’s just a hobby. The book I wrote is “The Author.” I wish I’d put a question mark at the end of the title, because the question is, who wrote that part? It’s about a novel within a book, about a plot by the Russians to hide bombs in the United States. I published it myself. I still like to write.

(An employee notes in our interview that it’s not unusual to see Russell working on the property, sometimes late in the afternoon.)

Someone was driving by late one Sunday afternoon and passed an old guy operating a piece of equipment on the side of the road. They said, “I thought Russell Lands was a pretty upstanding organization. Do they have indentured servants or something? This poor old guy was getting off that bulldozer, his clothes were nasty, and he looked about 80 years old. What kind of organization is that?”

Well, that guy was me!