ELKHART — In Elkhart, the name Benny Russo is synonymous with helping others.
Russo, who died in 2016 at age 79, had a special place in his heart for senior citizens and those less fortunate than himself.
“He was always looking out for the people who, for whatever reason, was either pushed to the side, was forgotten about or they just had a problem,” said Council on Aging of Elkhart County president David Toney at breakfast and award ceremony on Tuesday morning.
Included in Russo’s volunteer and charitable work were serving on the Council on Aging board and either making donations out of his own pocket or seeking out the right people for helping when the Elkhart senior community was in need.
That’s why, in 2017, the council created the Benny Russo Community Award.
“We created this award to remember what he did with us, what he did for this community,” said Toney.
With about 100 people in attendance at the Lex 530, Toney presented this year’s Benny Russo Community Award to local business leaders and philanthropists Art Decio and Rex Martin for having similar character, accomplishments and stature in Elkhart County as Russo and for reflecting the values he demonstrated in his life.
“Everybody seems to know Art. He seems to be a legend in our county,” said Toney.
Decio, when he was in his 20s, joined his family’s struggling business and took it from the garage to becoming one of the three largest manufactured home builders in the United States, according to the Council on Aging.
At age 35, Decio was featured in a TIME Magazine article entitled ‘Millionaires: How do they do it,” proving that even in the 1960s his results with Skyline Corporation deserved national recognition.
He has worked locally and nationally, serving on boards of educational, religious and civic organizations, including the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He has been chairman of Holy Cross College and fulfilled several presidential appointments to national commissions.
Decio has received honorary degrees from eight institutions of higher learning, including University of Notre Dame.
“Rex – this is impressive,” said Toney,” he is the fourth generation of a successful, large international business, which is quite rare.”
Martin joined NIBCO INC. in 1975, and became president and CEO in 1992 and chairman of the board in 1995.
He is also the co-founder and chairman of The Rex & Alice A. Martin Foundation, which makes donations to fund major projects for children by all NIBCO locations, according to NIBCO.
Locally, Martin has served on the boards of organizations including United Way of Elkhart County, WNIT Public Television, The American Red Cross of Elkhart County and the Elkhart Community Foundation. He currently serves on the Student Athletic Advisory Board of the University of Notre Dame.
In 2004, Martin received the highest honor given by the State of Indiana, when he was presented with the Sagamore of the Wabash.
Toney said the Council on Aging has plenty of reason to be grateful for Decio and Martin.
“If it wasn’t for two individuals, we would not be standing here this morning,” he said, before presenting the Benny Russo Community Award to Martin and Bob Meyers, who accepted the award on behalf of his close friend Decio, who was unable to attend because of an illness.
Martin spoke briefly but didn’t want to take credit for the success of the Council on Aging.
“Art and I didn’t do very much. It was all David and his team that turned this organization around,” he said, encouraging everyone in the city to support the council.
Meyers said Decio was very proud to receive the award.
“First of all because it’s named for Ben Russo, who did so much – like Art Decio – very quietly, for the community,” he said.
In the audience were several local community leaders, including two current and one former mayor, as well as Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce president Levon Johnson.
“As businessmen, they are titans in this community,” he said.
Not only have Martin and Decio helped many local residents put food on the table by creating jobs, they have also impacted young people and made Elkhart a better place stay in or come back to, he said.
“One of the things that sets us apart is the level of philanthropy that our business leaders take on. And you want to talk about two gentlemen that have walked that talk, those are two shiny examples of that investment back into the community,” Johnson said.
Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese, R, said people like Decio and Martin don’t come around often.
“They have employed hundreds of people in their two businesses and are and continue to be a real credit to the City of Elkhart,” Neese said.
Neese said that he, as mayor, has had the chance to work with the two, and that he found himself in awe of their business talents.
“I know a lot of people would love to have two people like both Art Decio and Rex Martin,” he said. “I under no circumstances want to see either one of them ever leave Elkhart.”
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