Buddy Benson — Remembering The Man

His players often referred to him simply as The Man.

I was in Fordyce on Friday morning, waiting to meet with the director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum at Tuscaloosa, when I received the sad news.

Buddy Benson, the head football coach at Ouachita Baptist University for 31 seasons, had died at age 77.

It was, in a sense, fitting that I was in Fordyce helping the fine folks there plan for a Bear Bryant Museum when the call came. I say that because Buddy Benson was my Bear — a larger-than-life college football coach who influenced me in far more ways than I can begin to describe on this Good Friday night.

I’ve written before how fortunate I was to grow up in Arkadelphia when I did. That’s because my heroes weren’t faraway figures that I watched only on television or read about in magazines.

My three heroes — my father, Buddy Benson and Ouachita head basketball coach Bill Vining — were all right there in town. They were people I saw every day.

It’s easy to become overly sentimental, and I’ll do my best to guard against too many maudlin remembrances on this blog. Suffice it to say I’ve lost two of my heros in recent weeks — my dad last month; Coach Benson today.

I visited Coach Benson several times in the intensive care unit at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock. He wasn’t conscious, but his son-in-law Tiger and I spent a long time one afternoon during the Masters commenting on golf shots to him.

I would like to think he heard us.

After retiring from coaching following the 1995 season, Coach Benson served as Ouachita’s athletic director until 1998. In retirement, he was a constant presence on the golf course at DeGray Lake Resort State Park, where he was known for rounds of speed golf that tired out his playing partners.

I was raised just down the street from the Ouachita stadium and practice field. From almost the time I was old enough to walk, fall afternoons were spent watching my beloved Tigers practice (at least until I was old enough to have my own football practices to attend).

I was in awe of him.

I’m sure I was in the stands at Ouachita games as a baby, but I don’t ever remember sitting in the stands for a Tiger football game. From the time I was old enough to remember those Saturday games all the way through high school, I was roaming the Ouachita sidelines. By the time I was a freshman in college, I was in the press box broadcasting the games on the radio.

After games, Coach Benson and his family were at our house, we were at the Benson house or I was in the car with the coach and his assistants as we raced from an afternoon Ouachita game to another Arkansas city to watch an evening battle between two of our AIC opponents.

The things that writers and broadcasters look for in a team at the start of any football season are things such as size, speed and depth. Usually, Coach Benson’s Ouachita teams weren’t very big and weren’t very fast. There rarely was any depth. But some way, somehow, those squads consistently won more games than they lost.

Coach Benson always believed that the winning would take care of itself if he took care of the details.

Here’s how Arkansas Democrat sports editor Fred Morrow put it in a column after the Tigers had won a share of the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference championship in 1975: “His athletes are going to go to class. They’re not going to abuse (or even get caught using) tobacco or alcohol, and they’re going to keep their hair nice and neat, and they’re going to say yes sir and no sir. Oh, they’re also going to receive degrees.”

And here’s how Coach Benson put it: “I’m not running a popularity contest. I tell our players to keep working and keep doing the little things right. Just stick to your knitting and something good will happen.”

I mentioned Bear Bryant. It was Coach Bryant who once said, “I ain’t nothin’ but a winner.”

Buddy Benson was a winner all his life.

Coming out of De Queen High School, he was one of the most highly recruited running backs in the nation. Coach Benson’s mother kept wonderful scrapbooks through the years. I’ll never forget a De Queen Bee story posted in one of those scrapbooks that announced that the University of Oklahoma had sent a plane to pick up the touted running back. The plane landed at Horatio because the runway was longer than the runway at De Queen.

The De Queen recruit was taken to dinner that night in Oklahoma City by Sooner head coach Bud Wilkinson, the toast of the town after having won the national championship in 1950.

Coach Benson delighted in telling this story: “The waiter came over and asked us if we wanted to start with something. Coach Wilkinson said: ‘Buddy, I think I’ll have a shrimp cocktail. Do you want one?’ I had rarely been out of Sevier County. I thought he was testing me. So I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘No sir. I don’t drink.”’

Wilkinson’s teams won 47 consecutive games between 1953 and 1957. But Coach Benson missed his home state and transferred to the University of Arkansas. He helped lead the Razorbacks to a share of the 1954 Southwest Conference championship, an 8-3 record and a berth in the Cotton Bowl against Georgia Tech.

Despite all of his accomplishments at Ouachita, thousands of now elderly Arkansans still remember him best for throwing the 66-yard touchdown pass to Preston Carpenter at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium to lead the Hogs to a 6-0 victory over the nationally ranked Ole Miss Rebels.

The late Orville Henry, the longtime sports editor of the Arkansas Gazette, later would describe what was known as the “Powder River Play” as the school’s most famous play to that point because it put the Arkansas program on the map and gave the Razorbacks a statewide following.

After his college graduation in the spring of 1956, Coach Benson was offered a professional contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He turned down that offer (professional football paid rookies very little in those days) to try his hand at coaching high school football.

Once again, Buddy Benson was a winner.

He took a job at Lewisville High School in far south Arkansas, and his first team there went 10-1. His second team had a record of 7-1-2, and Buddy Benson was being talked about as one of the hottest young coaches in the region.

He needed to provide for his young family, though, and coaching high school sports in Arkansas was a good way to starve in the 1950s. So he decided to sell automobiles.

He told the sports editor of the Texarkana newspaper: “I’m getting a better deal going into the automobile business. It’s just one of those things. I had the opportunity to go, and I couldn’t pass it up. As much as I like it here, I have to make a living for my family.”

The writer Buddy Benson was speaking to was Wick Temple, who would go on to become a top executive for The Associated Press.

Temple wrote in a column: “His was the model small school coaching situation. He produced fine athletes and a fine athletic program. He had a good record and no difficulties with anyone, much less the school board. But he quit. He left what had taken him 10 years of playing and coaching to achieve.”

Three years later, Buddy Benson realized he had made a mistake.

It was August 1961 when he showed up at the annual coaching clinic in Little Rock to look for a job. He wasn’t choosy. He just wanted to be back in coaching.

Someone told him that the Ouachita head coach, Rab Rodgers, needed an assistant. Coach Benson met with Rodgers, and the older coach offered him an assistant’s position.

Buddy and Janet Benson moved to Arkadelphia 50 years ago and never left.

Rab Rodgers decided to get out of coaching in 1965 and serve as the school’s full-time athletic director. Coach Benson was promoted. It was, at best, a risky proposition for him. Few people believed Ouachita could win in football, and some of Coach’s Benson’s friends believed he had doomed his career by taking on an impossible task.

The school’s president, Dr. Ralph Phelps, had told the student body in the late 1950s: “We should not expect overnight miracles of our teams or coaching staffs. Ouachita, after having been at the pinnacle of athletic glory, has sunk about as low as a school can go without dropping competition altogether.”

The school had experienced just two winning seasons the previous 16 years.

That’s what makes this fact so remarkable in retrospect: Coach Benson did not have a losing season in his first 12 years. He worked his magic quickly. By his second year as head coach, the Tigers had captured a share of the AIC championship.

His players were a reflection of their leader. They wore suits on road trips, they maintained a clean-cut appearance and they played the game cleanly.

The Man turned boys into men.

His hundreds of former players had a strong loyalty to The Man, who had been a tough taskmaster when they were in school.

Yes, Buddy Benson was tough. He accepted nothing less than a player’s best.

“Suck it up,” he was fond of saying.

Coach Benson’s 162-140-8 record at Ouachita is amazing when you consider how little money he had to spend on his program and how poor the facilities were. He rarely had more than two or three full-time assistants. Most high school coaching staffs in Arkansas were larger than what he ever had at Ouachita.

Yet he produced 16 all-America and 208 all-conference players. His greatest accomplishment was the fact that almost all of his players graduated. Former Tigers moved on to success in business, medicine, law, education and other professions.

Buddy Benson’s recruiting strategy was based on quality rather than quantity, not only physical quality but also mental and moral excellence. Once those recruits reached the Ouachita campus, Coach Benson saw to it that football and social life did not outweigh academic concerns.

Let me put it this way: Those players were scared not to graduate.

Yes, Buddy Benson had opportunities to move to larger schools.

Sitting in his den one day, I asked him why he stayed at Ouachita despite the tiny athletic budgets and the crumbling facilities.

Here’s what he told me: “There’s just something special about this school. You can see it in the students and feel it when you walk around the campus. We have a high class of individuals who go to school here. I think that if a kid can stick it out with us for four years, he’ll end up being a pretty high-class person himself.”

Coach Benson’s most famous player, of course, was Cliff Harris. Cliff played in five Super Bowls for the Dallas Cowboys and was inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor.

I visited with Cliff by telephone this afternoon. He told me that he thought of Coach Benson often, even during those Super Bowl games.

Cliff said his college coach “taught us to achieve at levels we didn’t believe were possible. At critical moments in my life, I’ve thought of Coach Benson and the things he taught me. It was his influence that allowed me to step it up a notch at those important times.”

On the night my father died — as I waited at the Little Rock nursing home for the funeral home personnel to arrive from Arkadelphia and pick up his body — the first call I received on my cell phone was from Coach Benson.

“Are you all right?” he asked me. “Do you need me to come up there?”

“No sir,” I replied. “I’ll be OK.”

You see, he had taught me long ago to “suck it up” in tough times.

I have no doubt, though, that he would have been in the car headed to Little Rock in minutes had I said I needed him.

It’s Easter weekend, and we celebrate the resurrection. I’ll go to bed tonight with this good thought: The coffee is hot in heaven and Coach Benson has joined up with my dad, Quintus Crews, Ike Sharp, Otis Turner, Cliff’s dad Buddy Harris and all of those other great men who went before him.

They’re telling football stories around that round table just like the old days, discussing recruits and even second-guessing some of Coach Benson’s past play calls. Mac Sisson is there taking notes.

I’ll be honest. It’s hard to lose another hero.

On those hot August days when the preseason practices seemed to last until dark, Coach Benson would pace up and down the practice field under that big pecan tree and chant this to his players: “It’s hard but it’s fair. You had a good home, you should have stayed there.”

You know, I did have a good home in Arkadelphia. I had a good home because the town had men like Buddy Benson.

I hope you know what you meant to me, Coach. I loved you and everything you stood for.

Buddy Benson: He was one of a kind.

He was The Man.

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38 Responses to “Buddy Benson — Remembering The Man”

  1. Jane Sharp says:

    Rex, one of your best. You are so gifted with your typed words. They are from your heart! You are family. Thank you for all the wonderful previous blogs about the men you mentioned in this blog.. They were all wonderful men and Heaven has welcomed them all with open arms. Thank you again for your insight into one of BEST COACHES EVER!
    Jane

  2. I never get tired of hearing that shrimp cocktail story…it’s one of my favorite stories ever. Coach Benson was handsome and classy until the very end.

  3. Great Job! Rex, We will sure miss “Coach”… May God Bless you and your family. Coop

  4. Jim Crane says:

    Thanks, Rex, for your tribute to “Our Coach”. One of the proudest accomplishments in my life is to have played four years for Coach Benson. He was a “constant” in my life. I could always count on him to be there and he always took care of “His Boys”. He was “The Man”, my friend and I am a better man for his presence in my life. I love him as my second father and I will miss him greatly.

  5. Wendelyn Osborne says:

    Rex, you have done a wonderful job in putting your thoughts and memories into words just as you did for the men you mentioned in the latter portion of this story. What a wonderful gift God has given you. Even though Coach will be missed, I thought on my way home today Coach went home to be with our Lord on the very weekend He arose soooo many years ago. How great is that??? And yes, I’m sure those guys are having the time of their life talking back and forth but I’m sure Mac is putting in his 2 cents worth in addition to takng notes :)

  6. Michael Balay says:

    How did it go?

    “Play for and make the breaks. Pursue, oskie, and…” Rex, you can probably quote the rest.

    Gang tackling. Coach Benson loved gang tackling.

    The man was tough, fearless, and would walk through fire for his team. He personified Old School leadership.

    The man lives on in his family, his players, and the rest of us who knew him.

  7. rexnelson says:

    You got it, Mike.

    How may times did we hear those pregame axioms?

    “If at first the game or breaks go against you, don’t get shook or rattled. Just put on more steam.” — Rex

  8. Vance Walker says:

    Rex, thanks for a great tribute to a great man! All of us from the Arkadelphia area remember Coach Benson for his integrity, ability, and status as a local icon. He’ll be missed for sure. The only problem with reaching middle age where we are now is losing people like Coach Benson.

  9. Terry DeWitt says:

    Great story Rex. As usual, you have captured the exact picture of what “the man” was like to many people. Many of us have a story of how we ended up at Ouachita. Most of these in some way deal with Coach Benson. He helped me in many ways and was instrumental in my growth as a man. I am lucky to have lived in Arkadelphia with the man for the past 20 years. I ran into him in Wal-Mart, saw him at Andy’s, and not too long before he went into the hospital, I saw he and Janet in the Health Club. He even taught me how to tie a tie in college. I hope Coach Murphree’s book gets published sometime soon as there are many people who have fantastic stories to share. Cheers!

  10. Jim Brewer says:

    Rex, there was something magical about being in and around the AIC in the ’70s and ’80s. I know those of us at UAM always liked and respected Coach Benson. He’ll be missed.

  11. David Sharp says:

    Rex,

    As always, very well written.

    Coach will be dearly missed. Arkadelphia and Ouachita will just not be the same without his presence.

  12. Nancy Spargo DeLamar says:

    Coach Benson was a remarkable man who will be greatly missed. He and his family served as guides for many of of us as our families went through the ups and downs of life. Thank you for your words and memories about his contributions, he made the world a better place for his having been among us.

  13. Dan Grant says:

    Rex–thanks for your great tribute to Coach Benson. I had the privilege of being his president for 18 of his 31 seasons as coach of the Ouachita Tigers. You covered well his remarkable qualities that made him a dream coach for a small private university. I taught for 22 years at Vanderbilt and the chancellor would have given his right arm to have a coach with Benson’s record of accomplishments. Some time I’ll share my favorite Benson stories with you. Thanks again for sharing your memories.

  14. Darrell Potts says:

    Rex, nicely said. I only played for him one year – but that’s a year I’ll never forget.
    His impact will last long after we’re gone.

  15. Mark Baber says:

    Rex you did a masterful job in this article. I did not play football under coach Benson. I did benefit from his larger than life leadership shadow that he cast over all of Ouachita. You made me cry. It was a good cry. Thank God for Buddy Benson! His influence will never die!

  16. Ray Estes says:

    Awesome article Rex. My initial shock and sadness at the news of Coach Benson’s passing has now been overcome by fond memories of him and times playing football for him. Learned how tough he was as I watched my older brother play and excel under Coach Benson the 4 years before I started playing for him. Then I spent 4 years becoming a better player and man under Coach Benson. He was hard, very hard, but always fair. Learned many lessons from him, alot about football, alot more about life. Thanks Rex.

  17. Rex, thank you for sharing such an inspiring account of Coach Benson’s life at Ouachita, as well as his years prior to OBU.

    When the Benson family moved to Arkadelphia, all those years ago, they moved into a house next door to our house, on Walnut Street. I knew Coach Benson as a great guy, an intense personality, a man with a stare that could look right through you, and a man who expected the best in his players, as well as in others. I truly admired him and his precious wife, Janet, and I always enjoyed babysitting for their sweet children, Gary and Laurie. That really dates me, doesn’t it?

    As we mourn over our loss, on this earth, Jesus has already welomed Coach Benson to his new home, and heaven’s angels are rejoicing.

    Can’t you just imagine all our dads who have gone to heaven before him, now sitting together talking football plays! What a grand reunion they are experiencing!

    I can hardly wait to hear my own dad talking football, as I know he is now able to hear without any difficulty, and he can now express his thoughts very clearly! What joy!

  18. Lee Johnson says:

    I was 14 in 1954 and was in the stands when Buddy Bob Benson threw the pass to Preston Carpenter. I remember standing up almost the entire game and the crowd calling the Hogs a lot more than they do today. That game was the foundation for all that came after. I still have the game program and our ticket stubs. Buddy Bob was my favorite player from then on.

  19. Margaret Martin Brazil says:

    Great article, Rex! I have another great story for you. Last night, my husband Jim, emailed one of his best friends, Raboo Rodgers, to let him know of Coach Benson’s death. We got Raboo’s email response this morning, who lives in Thailand. The following is part of his email. (So sorry to hear this. I remember when daddy brought him to Ouachita. He was 28. I was 18 at the time. His first year he coached track — and was faster than anyone on the team.) Coach Buddy Bob Benson will be missed by all! What a great man and coach who touched so many lives!

  20. Linda Spargo says:

    Hi, Rex,

    Enjoyed this lengthy biography of The Man. You know, he also taught all of those men to take care of me! Each and everyone of them from that group would do anything for me at the drop of a hat! Buddy Bob was always there for me, too. I will miss him so much. Arkadelphia has lost some good folks, a generation of amazing people. You and are were both influenced by similar citizens from Arkie. Thanks for such a thoughtful piece.
    Linda

  21. Gary Wade says:

    Rex – Once again you have captured the essence of Southern realism. Bless you for pouring you heart on the page once again. Since I moved to Arkadoo in 1979, I learned the way of Tiger. Frankly, you are one of my heroes. You always excelled in everything you took on – especially academically. I chose to follow you path, and learn from the outside. Benson encouraged me in his own way, as I was a track guy, and he didn’t know what to do with me until I excelled. Post OBU, he was always there to encourage and bolster that inner courage. That’s what coaches do! It is a life long calling and profession… that, he had for sure!

    Love ya brother,
    Gary

  22. Kerry Garnett says:

    Wonderful tribute to Coach Benson. It’s nice to read your writing again. Sorry for the loss of your dad. Best, Kerry

  23. Ken Yopp says:

    Rex…Sorry that I had not heard about your Dad’s passing. Thanks for a great article about Coach Benson. I fondly recall when I worked for your Dad and uncle and all of the men you mentioned sitting around the round table in the demo room at Southwest Sporting Goods. I remember those occasions when I was too embarrassed to go get coffee and would risk intruding on the conclave when it was in session! While I didn’t play football but baseball at Ouachita, I can honestly say I felt Coach Benson’s influence anytime he was in the stands or just outside the fence on the third base side at Rab Rogers Field. How appropriate that Coach complimented the entire student body when you quoted him, “…I think that if a kid can stick it out with us for four years, he’ll end up being a pretty high-class person himself.” My sympathies to the you and the Benson Family. Respectfully, KY.

  24. Pat Ponder says:

    Rex,

    This is a well written article of a great man and an awesome coach. I always respected Coach Benson and his passion for athletics. He always had a kind word and gave encouragement on a regular basis. My prayers to his family.

  25. Ben Elrod says:

    Rex, you captured the real Buddy Benson in your usual unique way. You have a wonderful gift for putting in words what others think but cannot articulate. Thanks again, as in the case of Ike Sharp, Red Nelson, and now Buddy Benson.

    I never thought of Buddy Benson a working for me, or for that matter, for Ouachita in the years that I was President of Ouachita. He had his own inner compass which he consulted for his sense of direction as a coach and as a man, and the results verfied the accuracy of the compass in the quality of his life as a coach and as a man. We were friends who respected each other. We had our own inside jokes which we enjoyed. Growing old together with Benson and Vining enriched my life and provides some of my most pleasant memories. I know that Coach Buddy Benson is settled in heaven now, and I’d bet my last nickel that one of his former players is getting an earful for some mistake he made in one of those Ouachita Tiger football games with Ouachita beating some team with much larger, faster, players and with considerably more adequate funding for their program. You pegged him exactly right; he was The Man.

  26. Kyle Ramsey says:

    Rex,
    As usual, you are spot-on. Thanks for this memorial. He really did do more with less than anyone ever has.

  27. Tiger Rold says:

    A copy of this should be sent to every coach in every college and high school program in the country. They should be reminded of their obligations to their players and their roles in molding their lives. Coach Benson touched so many lives, they don’t have to build a statue or name a stadium after him. His memorial is the players, students and fans who are better for knowing him.

  28. Jimmy Dean says:

    My favorite Coach Benson quote, “its not just a game, its the game of life. The way you handle adversity on the football field will be the way you handle it in life”. Truer words were never spoken into my life.

  29. Clay Price says:

    Rex,

    Great article about Coach Benson. There are two men who have had the most influence on my life – Ike Sharp and Coach Benson. I’m not sure where I would be had it not been for the discipline and mentoring from Ike and Coach Benson. I’ll actually miss Coach Benson punching me in the stomach and quoting “It’s All in a State of Mind”. As with Ike, Coach Benson will be greatly missed.

    Best wishes,

    Clay

  30. rexnelson says:

    Clay: Even when I was 9 or 10 years old, I knew to tighten my stomach muscles when Coach Benson walked by, gave me that look and told me to “get tough.”

    I’ve been able to quote “It’s All In A State Of Mind” since about that same age.

    We were both lucky to have him as a mentor — Rex

  31. Rocky says:

    Rex,
    Thanks for such a great piece of such a great man. As I have told you many times, Coach Benson is the main reason I graduated from OBU. He did so much for me while I was there. Also as I have told you before, he and Coach Vining were truly larger than life to me. I was not a football player but they both took an interest in me and always made me feel as if I was one of “their boys”.

  32. Rex,

    I just received a call from Nathan Porter telling me about the death of Coach Benson. This is one old Reddie who will never forget this man. He offered me encouragement when many people did not during some difficult days in the mid seventies. I am grateful for the opportunity of knowing him.

  33. Kent Brown says:

    Rex,

    My sister told me the news about Coach Benson’s passing and sent me your article. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and memories. Your tribute brought back many of the most vivid and youthful memories of my time in Arkadelphia. Though only briefly, I was most fortunate to have known “The Man”. He has been an unsuspecting influence at many times in my life. I do wish I had listened to him more but I glad I learned what I did. My prayers are with Mrs. Benson and the family.

  34. AllenK says:

    There’s no one and no thing more quotable than a Southern football coach,and Coach Benson and Coach Sporty Carpenter were no exceptions.

    Great article about a great man Rex.

  35. David W. says:

    Well-done, Rex. I hope someone will write as eloquently when John Prock passes. His story is equally deserving.

  36. Will Prewitt says:

    A very fine tribute to Coach Benson. I’m so glad that we got to spend 30 or so minutes together at the OBU spring game. Another example of what was so special about the AIC and what we hope to build with the GAC.

  37. RWF says:

    I last saw Coach Benson at your dad’s funeral. He always enjoyed telling a story about an event that he and I shared. I never tired of him telling it to whomever was close by, nor his grin and laugh about the circumstances. Now I can only try to tell it the way he did but, without the his flare and style. Like many who have written before me he encouraged me, helped me, gave advice, and showed genuine concern about me and my future. His wife was my supervising teacher while I “practice taught”. A person would be hard pressed to find two people that care about students at OBU more than Coach and Mrs. Benson. I join all of the others who will miss him dearly.

  38. GARY WRAY says:

    I WAS FORTUNATE ENOUGH TO KNOW OF BUDDY BOB BENSON , BEING IN A SCHOOL THAT PLAYED AGAINST HIS DE QUEEN TEAM IN THE VERY LATE 40;S EARLY 50 WHEN HE EXTABLISHED HIMSELF AS A VERY HIGHLY RECRUITED RUNNING BACK………….I WAS IN SCHOOL AT FAIRVIEW IN CAMDEN , HE CAME OVER AND LITERALLY SMOTHERED US MUCH TO OUR HUMILIATION, I THOUGHT WE HAD A FAIR TO GOOD TEAM, ALTO I WAS NOT ON THE TEAM …….I WAS A SKINNY KID , WORE THICK GLASSES , AND WAS NOT ABLE TO COMPETE IN ATHLETICS. . . BUT SO MUCH FOR THAT ……KNOW OF “” THE MAN”"” THRU HIS HIGH SCHOOL EXPLOITS , AND WATCHED HIM COMPETE AT ARKANSAS ….. WAS WELL ACQUAINTED WITH AND VERY PERSONAL FRIEND OF BILLY KYSER WHOM ALSO STARRED AS A RAZORBACK,,,,,,,, I WAS IN SERVICE AND OVERSEAS AS BILLY AND JIM MOODY MADE HISTORY FOR THE HOGS ………………. MANY MANY MANY MEMORIES OF THEM BOTH … RETIRED NOW , LIVING IN SOUTHEAST OKLAMOMA AFTER A PAPER MILL CAREER WITH WEYERHAEUSER …….CAMDEN , DE QUEEN , ARKADELPHIA ALL HOLD MANY MANY MEMORIES FOR ME …

    WILLIAM GARY WARY

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