Family, friends celebrate life of passionate, vibrant theater alumnus

Ben Vargas, a 23-year-old theater alumnus, died on Aug. 8 after a two-year battle with bone cancer.

Tyler Carmody, a 2017 journalism alumnus and Ben Vargas' best friend, holds a pile of Ben's childhood photos at the Celebration of Life on Aug. 12. | HANNAH BURNS / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Ben Vargas didn’t want a funeral.

A typical funeral couldn’t commemorate the 23-year-old theater alumnus’s beaming smile and his matching passionate demeanor.

So instead, before he died on Aug. 8 after a two-year battle with bone cancer, Vargas asked his family to celebrate his life with worldly foods, colorful clothes and music.

“He was so special to me,” said Marilyn Lopez, his mother. “He was my best friend. I know that people say there’s a bond between a mother and a son, and that is 100 percent so true. He was my everything.”

On Sunday, more than 150 people gathered at Luminous Hall in Northeast Philadelphia’s Harrowgate Plaza Shopping Center to remember Ben. Friends and family were asked to bring dishes that originate from the far-away countries — like Greece, Italy, Spain and Brazil — that Ben wanted to travel to, but couldn’t because of his illness.  

His mother got the inspiration for this “eat around the world” celebration after Ben and his 18-year-old sister Miranda booked a trip to Walt Disney World’s Epcot Theme Park in the spring to eat at the park’s World Showcase of international restaurants. But Ben’s illness kept him from going.

His friends and family described the dark-haired bespectacled young man of Spanish and Puerto Rican heritage as selfless, genuine and always positive — even during his final and toughest days.

In the hospital, Ben tried to online shop for his mother. When the pain in his hands became too much, he would tell her to buy herself gifts using his money. He would even visit other hospital rooms to cheer up the other patients, his family said.

“When he was on the verge of his death, he would still find a way to say something positive when he couldn’t even talk or breathe,” said Tyler Carmody, a 2017 journalism alumnus and Ben’s best friend since fifth grade. “All the nurses … would fight to have Ben as their patient, and they just fell in love with him.”

In 2013, Ben started studying biology at Temple to one day become an orthodontist or a dentist. His plans changed after he discovered his passion for theater after taking one theater class, which prompted him to switch his major.

“He really found what he wanted to do,” Carmody said. “It was a big choice for him to go from what would obviously make a lot of money being an orthodontist to doing something that really made him happy.”

While at the university, Ben was an involved student, racking up a laundry list of extracurriculars.

He worked as the technical director for the student-run theater club Sidestage Season, participated in the Insomnia Theater club and was the student assistant technical director where he made sets for the department’s productions. He also was a member of the theater fraternity Alpha Psi Omega.

“Ben fought a long and courageous battle, but never let that interfere with his love of theater,” said Robert Stroker, the dean of the School of Theater, Film and Media Arts, in a statement. “He sought out new opportunities and challenged himself to learn as much as possible about design and production.”

In summer 2016, Ben had an apprenticeship building sets at a theater in Cape May, New Jersey. He started feeling pain in his right knee, but didn’t think too much of it because he was building sets for 10 hours a day, Carmody said. The pain persisted, and he decided to see a doctor, who later discovered a tumor in his knee.

In January 2018, tumors spread to his spine. He withdrew from in-person classes in Spring 2018 and had spinal surgery in April.

Ben was just one class shy of getting his degree. Understanding the severity of his illness, the theater department waived Ben’s final credits, allowing him to receive his diploma and a plaque in May.

“That was the best Mother’s Day present,” Lopez said. “I don’t think anyone could top that one.”

On Sunday, rock and hip-hop music played as a slideshow of photos projected on a wall showed Ben as a small child grinning from ear to ear, his high school graduation and him and his friends dressing up for Halloween at Temple.

Ben’s friends loved him for his kind, happy nature and they all described him as someone they could always turn to for help.

Carmody recalled his “best times” with Ben on their high school debate team. The duo, who had matching tattoos of their debate trophy, would print out nearly 20 different scripts and spend hours reading them to find the best one with the characters they wanted to portray.

Ben only formed more long-lasting friendships at Temple.  

“He brought so much light and joy to every single person he met and brought so much joy to every single day of his life,” said Katie Brighter, a 2017 theater alumna, who lived with Vargas during her senior year. “His number one power was his love because he loved every single person so fiercely and put so much passion into every single thing that he did.”

Marcellus McQueen, a 2017 theater alumnus, befriended Ben and Brighter in a theater class during his sophomore year. McQueen said he was jealous everyone had group chats except him, so the trio formed their own and quickly became best friends, calling themselves a “triple delight.”

“[Ben was]… probably the best person you could ever come in contact with,” McQueen said. “He was always ready to help somebody else, but he never wanted to be helped himself.”

For Ben’s sisters, Quelyn and Miranda Vargas, some of the best times with their brother were playing video games. Quelyn Vargas said she remembers long nights playing Harry Potter and Resident Evil video games with Ben on the first Playstation that came out.

“When we were in high school, I thought my brother was such a dork,” she added. “And now I cherish that about him.”

Ben, who came out as bisexual on his Facebook page on June 1 in honor of LGBT Pride Month, was “open to identities,” Carmody said. “He wanted to respect that and just be selfless.”

To Miranda Vargas, her brother is “a hero.”

“It just takes a certain type of person to actually take the time to listen to every single person he meets,” she said. “Everyone is family to him.”

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