MUSCATINE, Iowa– “Ever since I can remember, we’ve been coming to Muscatine.” The son of migrant workers, Benjamin “Ben” Meléndez traveled from Laredo, Texas, to Nebraska, to Muscatine every year of his childhood.
“I loved growing up on the farm, the freedom, the open air,” he recalls.
Whenever the Meléndez family came to Muscatine, they worked on the VanCamp Farm, owned by James VanCamp. Meléndez considers him one of his earliest mentors. “He would always treat us like family,” said Meléndez: “Every time we would make a mistake, he would laugh. He would ask us if we’d learned from it, and if we had, it was okay. I’ve carried that with me.”
Though living as migrant workers posed many challenges to Meléndez’s family, he valued the experience. “It was a hard life, but it was a beautiful one,” he mused. “These roots created a very strong foundation for me,” he observed. “It was a different life, but it allowed you to be you–there’s a lot of freedom.”
When Meléndez got a bit older, his parents decided to settle in Muscatine, and he attended Muscatine High School. While there, Meléndez saw many children from migrant families fall through the cracks and, as a sophomore, he considered dropping out of school himself. However, the relationships he built with Dave Deters, a professor at Muscatine Community College, and Mike Ruby, a teacher at Muscatine High School, convinced him to stay in school until his graduation in 1981. Out of all of his siblings, only Meléndez earned his high school diploma.
After finishing high school, Meléndez sought out a career in communications. He wanted to restart a Spanish show that previously ran on the local radio station KWPC. At first, the station did not have a position open for him, so he hung around as a volunteer. Eventually they hired him. Though his time on air had a rocky beginning, he soon started hosting his program live and gained quite a following. He later worked on KMFH, an alternative rock station as a late night host before freelancing for several years.
In 1985, Meléndez moved to Texas and took a job at KELT, an adult contemporary radio station. While there, he learned about a growing broadcasting program at Brownsville Independent School District’s Gladys Porter Early College High School and decided to work there.
“I pretty much did everything there,” he recalls with a chuckle.
After holding almost every technical position imaginable, Meléndez started teaching at Porter. After a long and successful career there, their communications program had grown into a magnet program with two dedicated teachers. For the 2007-2008 school year, Meléndez earned Brownsville ISD teacher of the year, making him the first career and technical education teacher to do so.
After a brief retirement in 2018, the Brownsville ISD coaxed Meléndez back into service to help Lopez Early College High School’s struggling audio visual production program recover. Though Meléndez faced many difficulties, including helping senior students without access to Premier Pro Master It for certification via Zoom, he has seen the program take a turn for the better. “We’re making progress, little by little,” he asserted.
Through all of Meléndez’s experiences, he has always considered Muscatine his hometown and held onto the lessons and positive mindset he learned here. “I still feel Muscatine is home because this is where I grew roots.”