With upward of 50 local residents attending, Benld city officials hosted an open house and dedication for the newly remodeled Benld Civic Center, now renamed the DeStefane Events Center, on Saturday afternoon at the renovated facility. Benld native Rick DeStefane, 64, Creve Couer, Mo., who financially subsidized the project, was a guest of honor.
“I think they did a great job,” DeStefane said of the renovation, which included extensive remodels of bathrooms, kitchen and bar, along with a new ceiling, new walls and asbestos removal.
Retired educator Ed Saracco, who taught DeStefane as a student at Gillespie High School, told the group that “Rick was the kid who always had a smile on his face to the point that you worried about what he was up to.” Active in sports and other extracurricular activities, DeStefane was among the top 10 students in the graduating class of 1976, according to Saracco. The natiionally known entrepreneur and nursing care executive was the 1976 prom king at GHS and was inducted into Community Unit School District 7’s “Wall of Honor” in 2013 for his “commitment to providing outstanding health care services.”
Saracco said the Civic Center project had its genesis with a phone call from DeStefane in May 2021 during which DeStefane said he wanted to do something for the community and ask Saracco for ideas. Shortly after the phone call, DeStefane flew himself to the Litchfield airport where Saracco and Ald. John Balzraine picked him up and brought him to Benld. They had two projects in mind—renovating the Civic Center and improving landscaping at the public library. DeStefane agreed to pay for both.
Despite his success later in life, Saracco said DeStefane never forgot his roots in Benld and often volunteered to help when he could. When the Benld Elementary School was built, Saracco said DeStefane called and asked if there was anything it needed.
“I said, ‘I hope not, it’s a brand new school’,” Saracco recalled. Undeterred, DeStefane later became a major donor to the High School Sports Complex.
Saracco said removing the 105 photos and biographies of Benld veterans that lined the walls of the Civic Center since the city’s centennial celebration was perceived as a possible stumbling block. Those materials have since been organized in binders and place on file at the Benld Library where they are accessible to a wider cross-section of people. Additionally, volunteers have collected information on about 30 veterans that were not included in the original project. The veterans project now includes nearly 300 photos and additional materials, such as the program for a 1946 dedication of a plaque honoring local veterans that was displayed at the Old Benld School.
Mayor Jim Kelly publicly thanked DeStefane for supporting the Civic Center project and extended thanks to city works, contractors and volunteers who contributed to the project.
“Rick, I want to thank you for what you have done here for the people of Benld,” Kelly said. Kelly also cited Build Benld for that organization’s donation of new folding chairs for the facility.
The months-long renovation project included removing and replastering walls, renovating the kitchen with new appliances and fixtures, upgrading the electric system, installing an electric door for handicapped accessibility, and redesigning the bar area. Along the way, contractors had to contend with unexpected encounters with asbestos tile and the discovery of termite damage. John Watson of Gillespie was the general contractor.
According to city officials, the events center is now a desirable venue for a variety of events including wedding receptions, showers, funeral dinners and other uses.
Taking the microphone for nearly 30 minutes, DeStefane credited his parents and his upbringing in Benld for much of his success.
“I love this community,” he said. “It’s just a neat, Norman Rockwell town.” As owner and president of the Reliant Care Group, LLC, DeStefane said he has to be familiar with small town cultures throughout the Midwest.
“If you’re going to have a business in a community, you’d better understand the culture,” he said. “I have yet to find a town that has the attributes Benld has.”
Today, Reliant Care Group and it’s subsidiaries operate in three states with about 4,000 employees and $250 billion in annual revenue. In addition, DeStefane has diversified into real estate holdings in St. Louis and other areas, semi-pro sports teams in Hannibal (where he maintains a second home) and Bloomington, and restaurants, including a new restaurant near Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis.
“Why do that?” he asked. “If you do it for the money, I’m not saying you won’t be successful but you do it to do the best you can do. That’s what my mom and dad taught me.”
After a stint as Vice President and Assistant to the Chairman of the Lockwood Group, DeStefane began buying and starting businesses in health care related industries in 1990. He said he approached 20 banks for a start-up loan before finding a bank in Chicago willing to take a chance on his fledgling company. The early days were tough, he recalled, especially when it came to managing cash flow. Meeting the weekly payroll, he said, was a major issue.
“Every day you wanted to quit,” he said, “but I’m from Benld and we don’t quit.”
After graduating from Gillespie High School, DeStefane earned dual undergraduate degrees—one in political science and one in business management—from Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. He also earned a Masters in Business Administration with a specialization in accounting from SIU-E, and he became a certified public accountant in 1984. He has served as President of the Missouri Health Care Association and is a co-founder, board member and shareholder of the Business Bank of St. Louis. He also serves as co-chairman of the board for St. Alexius Hospital in St. Louis, and as a board member for the Northeast Missouri Economic Development Commission. He also is a licensed pilot.
Speaking to those attending the open house on Saturday, DeStefane recalled his formative years in Benld, where he started his first business mowing yards for neighbors—a venture that reinforced for him his first rule of founding a successful business: find a gap and fill it. He recalled playing whiffle ball tournaments, riding his bike and eagerly partaking of sweet confections at the local soda founain. All the while, he said, he was absorbing the work ethic, initiative and drive of the adults around him.
“Here’s what I’ve learned in life,” he said. “People want to know that you care. If they know you care, you can build their trust.”
In addition to DeStefane’s success in the business world, DeStefane said the community has produced other individuals who have excelled in their own fields of endeavor, including a federal prosecutor, a NASA aeronautical engineer and the former St. Louis County public prosecutor.
“I care about this community,” DeStefane said regarding his willingness to help. “I care about the people. I care about Benld. Please, don’t ever change.”
As part of the dedication, DeStefane was presented with an appreciation plaque bearing his quote: “Don’t leave this earth without making a positive difference in people’s lives. It’s just that simple.”