2020 Distinguished Alumni – Benjamin P. Hatke, Class of 1996
Ben Hatke was born in Lafayette to Gene and Roseanna Hatke, both graduates of Central Catholic. Ben has two younger sisters, Sarah and Annie, who are also graduates of CC. Ben attended St. Mary Cathedral School and St. Boniface before moving on and graduating from CC in 1996. While in high school, Ben was on the wrestling, football, and track and field teams, and he also participated in the musicals and on the speech team.
“My year on the speech team at Central Catholic turned out to be an invaluable first lesson in public speaking, which I’ve had to do quite a lot of,” said Ben. “My high school teachers also acted as some of my earliest artistic mentors. Mr. Bob Butz, in particular, really sparked my interest in words and their origins with his etymology class. He was also a tremendous and inspiring artist and really pushed me to improve my own art.”
After high school, Ben attended Christendom College in Front Royal Virginia where he majored in history and graduated in 2000. In 2001 Ben married Anna Bertolini, also a graduate of Christendom College.
After college, Ben spent several years doing freelance illustration and design work. In 2006 he studied painting in Florence Italy, which was his first real, formal art training. Around this time in the early 2000s, Ben also began creating comics and posting them online – most notably a webcomic called Zita the Spacegirl.
Ben signed a deal with First Second books (an imprint of Macmillan) for a Zita the Spacegirl graphic novel in 2008. The book was released in 2011 and was well-received. The trilogy went on to become a #1 New York Times bestseller. Today Ben writes graphic novels, picture books and prose novels. His books have been translated into eight languages. His graphic novel Little Robot won an Eisner award at the San Diego Comic Con in 2016, and the film rights for the Zita trilogy sold to Fox in 2017.
Ben is particularly proud of his role in children’s literacy. Little Robot was written specifically for children who were just starting to read. At 130 pages, the hope was that the children could read a whole book that had some length to it but, with very light text, it would still be manageable.
“I have treasured every note from every parent that said ‘my child learned to read thanks to your books!’”
In 2017, Ben was invited to travel abroad as part of the US Speaker Program to talk about visual storytelling at schools and universities. This program is funded by the US State Department with an aim to promote an understanding of U.S. policies and institutions within their political, economic, social, and cultural context.
Ben tries to incorporate the values of wonder, joy, honesty, and curiosity in his work. No matter if he is working on a painting or a story or a comic or a short film, he wants to make the world a more colorful, interesting, and wondrous place.
“In every story I write I try to let things get as dark as they need to be but without losing sight of the possibility of joy. No matter what age group I’m writing for, or what type of story I’m writing I always try to say something honest whether it’s about friendship, or love or terrible loss,” said Ben. “I think curiosity is the lifeline and the true guide of the artist. As long as you can look out at the world around you and be curious to learn more, I think the creative spark will still be alive.”
The Catholic faith and being connected to such a rich and deep tradition also has had a profound effect on the shape of Ben’s life. It has allowed him to look at the world, his family, and his own community of fellow artists with a very particular outlook, an outlook that treasures the dignity and beauty of every life and favors service and sacrifice and which has given him a longer view of history.
Ben and Anna have five daughters, (Angelica, Zita, Julia, Ronia, and Ida). The youngest, Ida, recently passed away last fall. As a memorial for his daughter, Ben is creating a remembrance wall for the pediatric intensive care unit where Ida died. Family members will be able to post photos and memories of the children who have passed away in the unit.
“The experience of losing my daughter, Ida, has been a real reminder about taking seriously the opportunities to use our personal gifts to give something back to the people around us,” said Ben.
Ben lives and works in the Shenandoah Valley with his family, though he has kept in touch with LCSS. He has a niece and two nephews who attend Central Catholic, the oldest of whom is a 2020 graduating senior.
“I’ve found that I’ve come to appreciate my experiences at CC more with each passing year. It’s easy to take the high school years for granted, but I come back here, and I see so many of the same families taking up the reins from the previous generation, and there’s a sense of solidity in that,” said Ben.
Ben and his work can be found on his website www.benhatke.com
For his creative spirit and his inspirational influence in children’s literature, it is with great pride that we recognized Benjamin P. Hatke as a 2020 Knight to Remember.