So long, Ben: Brownsville bids sad farewell to Judge Neece

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When Brownsville lost Ben Neece, it lost a piece of its heart.

An attorney who served 32 years as a municipal court judge (10 years as presiding judge), and four years as District 4 city commissioner, Neece died just after midnight on Dec. 12 at the age of 68. He leaves a legacy of empathy and compassion for the less fortunate, and was also deeply committed to the music and arts, the revitalization of downtown and the community in general, as anyone who knew him can attest.

Gilbert Velasquez spoke with The Brownsville Herald recently about his longtime friend, who was born and raised in Brownsville.

“The thing about Ben, I guess the best I can say it is he was a people person,” Velasquez said. “He helped a lot of people. That’s one thing that I would like to convey. He was a humanitarian at heart. A lot of people don’t know about his work with the Ozanam Center.”

Neece had been chairman of the homeless shelter since 2009, and worked to aid and feed downtown’s homeless as well, Velasquez said. Neece, whose law practice, Neece Legal Solutions, included sons Adam and Joshua, was heavily involved in the community in ways too numerous to list. Neece’s other son, Brandan, is a physicist and teaches AP calculus and AP statistics for IDEA Public Schools.

Neece served on the boards of several organizations, including the Brownsville Society for the Performing Arts, Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation, the Brownsville Historical Association (2013-2021), and the Brownsville Latin Jazz Festival. He supported the Good Neighbor Settlement House, Noche Gitana Flamenco at the George Ramirez Performing Arts Center (named for BSPA founder and Neece’s longtime friend, who died in 2019), Revival of Cultural Arts and the South Texas Afghanistan Iraq Veterans Association, to name just a few.

He was also a pioneer of downtown revitalization, opening the Crescent Moon and later, with Ramirez, the Half Moon Saloon in the 1880 Hernandez Hide Yard building downtown. He also ran second story cafe, the Spanish Moon, on East Washington Street for a few years, and led the effort to establish Earth Day festivities in Brownsville, Velasquez said.

“When he was commissioner he was instrumental in getting security cameras and the police substation downtown,” he added. “He was very much involved with that. … He was right there in the center of downtown in the very beginning of the revitalization effort. He genuinely cared about downtown.”

With Neece, what you saw was what you got, Velasquez said, adding that there was “nothing superficial” about his friend’s character.

Adam Neece said that although a lot of people knew his father as a former judge and city commissioner, far fewer knew the scope of his efforts to help people — such as his willingness to allow poor, elderly residents who’d racked up big traffic fines to pay whatever they could.

Ben Neece is shown during the 22nd Annual Memorial Day Silent March Monday, May 31, 2021. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

“He was aware that if you make $10,000 in one year and you rack up $1,000 in fines, that’s it, you’re done,” Adam said. “So he was always willing to work with people. He was willing, even as a judge, to look at every case individually and be very compassionate with people.”

“Compassionate, thoughtful and creative” are the first three words that come to mind when thinking about his dad, he said. Joshua said his father was also the local contact for the Texas Lawyers Assistance Program, which helps provide representation to people going through addiction or mental health issues.

“I actually saw on his desk a letter from the Texas Bar (Association),” Adam said. “They were thanking him for being a member of the … Lawyers Assistance Program for so long.”

His father also received a commendation for the extent of his pro bono legal work, Adam said.

“I think he had 166 hours last year of pro bono, which is free work for indigent or under-represented people,” he said. “He’s been doing that forever.”

Joshua came up with another word to describe his dad: ambitious — especially if it meant getting hold of something he thought would benefit the community.

As commissioner, Neece fought for transparency and was one of the first to shine a light on improprieties surrounding the failed Tenaska power plant deal, Adam said.

His father was also passionate about music, especially rock ’n’ roll, with a particular affinity for UK ’70s rock, he said.

“Obviously the Beatles,” Adam said. “He was a big Beatles fan.”

Ben Neece is shown marching during the 22nd Annual Memorial Day Silent March Monday, May 31, 2021. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

Neece himself was a consummate guitarist whose projects over the years included Lords of D’Nile and The Earthmen, with whom he’d perform on stage, with a Fender Stratocaster slung over his shoulder and trademark ponytail hanging down.

He played frequently at El Hueso de Fraile downtown, Adam often accompanying him on acoustic guitar. When joined by a female singer, the trio billed itself “La Sirena.” For his solo performances, Neece was “Benito de la Villa Moreno” — Ben of Brownsville.

Asked for final thoughts on their dad, Adam replied, “Most of all, he was just filled with love.”

“He did everything he did because he wanted to set a good example, not just for his kids but the community,” Joshua added.

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