Ben Hiatt '71 | David Townsend '75
Current board member Ben Hiatt ’71 wasn’t always the upstanding citizen he is today. In fact, he occasionally found himself working off demerits in the dining hall during his years at Blue Ridge. Little did he know at the time that his various odd jobs in the dining hall would have such a lasting impact. Clearly, not all life-changing moments occur in the classroom or even in the dorms or on the playing fields. For Ben, it happened while serving time for mischievousness. Ben laughs about it now. “I never realized that working off demerits in the cafeteria would lead to a life-long career in the food service and hospitality business.”
Ben was born in Ashland, Kentucky. His parents wanted the best educational opportunities available for their children. Ben watched his two older sisters go off to St. Margaret’s School in Tappahannock, Virginia, so he knew his educational days in Kentucky were numbered. Sure enough, as Ben approached his sophomore year, his parents once again turned to Virginia and found Blue Ridge School.
Though a few of his shenanigans landed him in the dining hall, Ben immediately found academic and athletic success. In fact, he was the first sophomore in the history of the School to play on the varsity basketball team. If that weren’t enough, he started, too! By the time Ben reached his senior year, he was given the responsibility of disposing of trash from the dorms on the weekends. His staff consisted of the demerit boys. “I was the garbage man. They actually trusted me to drive the truck to the dump. The other students and I managed to turn that thirty-minute exercise into about ninety minutes!”
From the first day he had stepped on campus, Ben had been impressed with the passion with which the teachers and coaches had worked with him and the other students. The likes of John Parrott, Jim Mascara, Rick France, Frank DeAngelis, Jordon Churchill, John Trimmer and Randy Ruffin coaxed more out of him than any of his teachers in Kentucky had managed to do. He remembers particularly fondly that he was elected to be a Prefect during his senior year. He credits each of those gentlemen with instilling in him the confidence he needed to succeed in that role.
After graduating from Blue Ridge, Ben attended Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where he earned a BA in Business Administration in 1975. That was followed by a year at Florida International University in Miami, Florida, where he earned an MS in Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management.
Marriott Hotels were looking for management candidates at that time. During an on-campus visit, Ben interviewed. Based on his accomplishments at Transylvania University and Florida International University (and maybe his experience in the Blue Ridge dining hall), Ben was hired and was later offered a position as a Food Production Manager at the Key Bridge Marriott hotel in Arlington, Virginia. After two years with Marriott, Ben landed a position as Chef at the Springfield Golf and Country Club in Springfield, Virginia. He enjoyed that position for three years, but he really wanted to help other restaurants accomplish their goals. This led to his position with Cini-Little, a company that specializes in hospitality business consulting and design services, from 1981 to 1983 in Germantown, Maryland. He had found his niche.
Ben continued to move up in the hospitality business when in 1983 he co-founded a foodservice management company, Entrepreneurs, Inc. As Senior Vice President of Operations with businesses in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, his responsibilities included overseeing eight operating foodservice businesses. Ben was doing what he loved and remained with the company until 1999 when he was forced to divest his interests over two separate, simultaneous legal actions involving his rights to operate a restaurant in Washington DC and a brew pub in northern Virginia. In fact, he and good BRS friend Jimmy Crocker ’72 as well as other partners purchased the second brew pub ever opened in Virginia. Because of Ben’s legal battles with the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms) and the State of Virginia, brew pubs now litter the Commonwealth, consistent with the rest of the country. “Life events occur, and you must learn to adapt and adjust. I learned that lesson at Blue Ridge. Today, I am in a great place in both my business and personal world. I learned a lot about myself and what really matters to me as a result of those legal battles.”
Having been inspired, perhaps, by his instructors at Blue Ridge, Ben began teaching others about foodservice and hospitality in 1999 at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Virginia. He applied many of the teaching strategies he had experienced while at Blue Ridge as an Assistant Professor of Hospitality Management. Though he remained at the College until 2007, he co-founded The Optimum Group in 2003 with current offices in Fairfax, Virginia and Bethesda, MD. Those were remarkably busy years but also very rewarding ones as he was now both consulting again and teaching others about the industry.
In 2007, Ben turned his full attention to The Optimum Group, a firm that provides foodservice and hospitality consulting to corporate America, cultural institutions, restaurants and schools. “After several years of teaching and consulting, traveling became my enemy while attempting to move around my academic commitments.” As a principal in the Optimum Group, he is engaged in concept and design development, quality assurance programming and soliciting operators for his business and cultural institutional partners. His clients have included such organizations as the National Cathedral, International Momentary Fund, Marriott Hotels, International American Development Bank, National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Aquarium and the Supreme Court.
When Ben considers his greatest successes in life, though, he doesn’t think about his occupation. He thinks about his family. In 1997 he married Beth, an IT Senior Executive who specializes in big data. They both devote quite a bit of their time to their teenagers Taylor and Ben in and around their home in Fairfax Station, Virginia. “Beth is beautiful, and she is why we have two beautiful children. All that I’ve accomplished in the working world wouldn’t matter very much without them.” He admits that this importance of family and friends was fostered by his parents as well as his years at Blue Ridge School.
Ben also knows the importance of giving back to his community. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington and former member of the Board of Directors of Visit Fairfax, a Fairfax County Convention and Visitors corporation, as well as past member of the executive committee of the Fairfax, Virginia, Chamber of Commerce. He is also a certified ServSafe instructor.
It is this gratitude that inspires Ben to give back to Blue Ridge. He always has. Perhaps his greatest positive impact on the School has been the annual Alumni and Friends Golf Classic. He and that same good Blue Ridge friend Jimmy Crocker ’72 retained an artist, developed a logo, had it embroidered on a shirt and then approached Assistant Headmaster Ed McFarlane in 1991 about the idea of an event that they thought would bring the Blue Ridge family together during Homecoming each year and raise some much needed funds for the Alumni Council. Their idea of the Golf Classic was readily accepted! Ben and Jimmy served as Chairs of the Golf Classic from 1991 to 2007. Ben has also earned a lifetime membership on the Alumni Council, having served on that governing body of the Alumni Association since 1992 – many of those years as treasurer. Since 2013, he has served on the Blue Ridge School Board of Trustees.
When asked about the influence of Blue Ridge on his life, Ben mentions friendship first. This happened in the dorms and on the athletic fields as much as it happened in the classrooms. He also learned how to be independent as he was held accountable for his own decisions. Living in a learning community 24-7 taught him the importance of clear communication, respect and compassion for others as well. “Having roommates and living on a hall with twenty or so other young men gave me many opportunities to learn both forgiveness and humility.” Not a day goes by that Ben does not thank Blue Ridge for showing him that discipline is necessary to be successful and that honor above all else is what matters in the work world and in one’s personal life.
To give some historical perspective to David Townsend’s introduction to Blue Ridge School, we must journey back to 1971 and to Charlotte, North Carolina. David was among thousands of teenagers wondering if his draft number to serve in Vietnam would be called. Social tensions were high as protests and retaliations to those protests within this country were frequent. The integration of the school systems in the early 70’s added to the tension. He felt adrift in all of the chaos as older friends left for Vietnam and as the city of Charlotte dealt with the anxiety caused by integration.
David’s parents knew he was a talented student and athlete, and they felt those talents were being stifled by the turmoil of the times. Though no school was immune to the troubles of the early 70’s in this country, David’s parents searched for an educational setting that would allow him to thrive away from the tensions currently felt in Charlotte. That brought them and David to Blue Ridge School.
When he first stepped foot on the campus in 1972 as a sophomore, David decided that he owed it to his parents and to himself to take full advantage of all that Blue Ridge had to offer. “I knew that BRS was a place where I could control the path I wanted to take in life. With commitment and remarkable guidance from both teachers and coaches, I was able to excel both academically and athletically.”
David was no academic slouch when he arrived at Blue Ridge, but his achievements in the classroom certainly rose to new heights. In fact, he maintained an academic average in the top 2 percent of his class in each of his three years on campus. His leadership skills came to the fore as well. He served as a prefect, for example. But his most memorable achievement was being selected as President of the Honor Council during his senior year. “I was so proud to be sitting beside the legendary Mr. Randy Ruffin.” David would also letter in three sports in each of the years he attended Blue Ridge.
David had participated in several sports during his school days in Charlotte, but football was his strongest interest. Then he met Mr. Bob Knauff, Blue Ridge School’s lacrosse coach. This meeting was one of several life-changing moments that David would experience while on campus. “Coach Knauff knew how to take football players like myself and teach us how to use our physical skills to our advantage in this game called lacrosse. I was immediately hooked.” Indeed, from that moment to this very day, David has experienced not only impressive success but also great joy from the sport of lacrosse.
“The highlight of my lacrosse career at BRS was beating Woodberry on their field to earn the Prep League championship title. Coach Knauff was a genius. Having played lacrosse at Hopkins, he was one of the elite coaches in the prep league, especially compared to the converted football coaches.” David was selected Virginia All-Prep defensive player in both his junior and senior years, and he was the co-captain of the team during his senior year in which his team finished 11-1 to take the Prep League title with that win over Woodberry.
David recalls a few details of that win. “Coach K (the original) pulled us together in the locker room prior to taking the field and explained that he wanted us to purposely look sloppy during our warm-up drills and that we shouldn’t communicate with each other. This would give Woodberry the impression that we weren’t focused. We thought he was crazy, but we played it up. Just before the opening faceoff, we huddled together. Coach K told us that we knew how to win so go out there and be the loudest, most aggressive team those guys had ever seen.” Upon hearing that, he fondly remembers, the team let out one deafening cheer of “Ground balls!” and took the field.
Blue Ridge took the first two faceoff’s straight to the goal for scores. The Barons were up 2-0 in less than two minutes. David was tasked with playing defense against Woodberry’s best attackman. When the game was over, that Woodberry player was scoreless. “Our team was dominant, and Woodberry fell victim.”
David then attended Randolph Macon College in Ashland, Virginia , where he continued to find great success in lacrosse, but now on the offensive side as an attackman. During his sophomore year, he was ranked sixth in the country for average goals per game. He was also a co-captain of the Randolph Macon Yellow Jackets in both his junior and senior years. Of course, David did not forget that he was to earn a degree at Randolph Macon as well, and he did just that as he graduated in 1979 with a BA in Business Economics.
David has remained involved in lacrosse in various ways all of his adult life. His participation in several different lacrosse ventures overlaps so it is easiest to list them by years as follows:
1980-2000 -- started the Richmond Lacrosse Club with BRS alum Powell Severin and over the years other BRS alumni such as Monty Hill and Hunter Francis;
1995-2000 -- Richmond Summer League lacrosse;
1996-2000 -- began playing for the Washington Lacrosse Club every weekend;
1996- 2014 -- played with the “Mr. Boh” lacrosse team in Baltimore in the Grand Masters and Super Masters;
2000-2005 -- played for the Great Atlantic Lacrosse Club in Chapel Hill, North Carolina;
2000-2005 -- played summer league lacrosse in Chapel Hill;
2006-2009 -- coached youth lacrosse in Durham, North Carolina, for rival lacrosse league;
2005-2014 -- played for the Raleigh Lacrosse Club on a limited basis;
2008-present -- playing for the USA Eagles Grand Masters team at the World Games in London and Ontario;
2014-present -- playing for the “Mr. Boh” Super Masters team at the World Games in Denver, Colorado.
“I have been fortunate to have played lacrosse with so many different individuals over the years. The camaraderie and friendships are precious to me. To this day, I can honestly say that during my senior year of playing sports at BRS, my teams included some of the best athletes I have ever known.”
When he’s not playing lacrosse, David does hold down a day job. He is currently Managing Partner and Regional Director of Construction Services with Trinity Partners in Raleigh, North Carolina. He realizes all too well that Blue Ridge helped him start achieving things both big and small. “Thank you to all of my teachers, coaches and teammates for helping me understand that through commitment and discipline life is full of opportunity. Cheers to the Class of 1975!”