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RICHARD BENSON: IN MEMORIAM

Richard Benson was born and raised in the seacoast town of Newport, Rhode Island, the third and youngest son of a Quaker mother and an ardent Catholic father. As a boy, he was so happy in his skin that his mother called him her “little ray of sunshine”; later on, befitting a child whose father was a stonecutter, she and nearly everyone else came to call him “Chip.”

His father, John Howard Benson, considered the greatest calligrapher and stone-letterer of his time, died when Chip was twelve. The year before, W. K. Wimsatt, a chess partner of Benson’s and a legendary English professor at Yale, successfully championed his dying friend for an honorary degree at the university, joining, for the first time, the Benson name and the school. This, however, had no observable effect on Chip, who, left with only a few sharp memories of his father, and thereby insulated from having to measure his life against that of an extraordinary man, gave up his education after one semester at Brown, explaining to Brown’s president—another friend of John Howard Benson’s—that he was leaving the school so that he could work with his hands. (It’s worth adding that Richard was directed from the president’s office to the dean of students for his send-off, which, in its entirety, consisted of the dean reading to him the first chapter of Moby Dick.)

From Providence, he took a crooked course for himself, moving on from the Navy to a minimum-wage job in a Connecticut printing plant and then an unparalleled career back in Newport as a photographer, master printer, and inventor of radical new techniques of photographic reproduction. Only after all of that did he himself cross paths with Yale, first as a great teacher in the Department of Photography and, fifteen years later, as an admired dean of the School of Art, before retiring in 2011 to pursue whatever interests attracted the sharp edge of his curiosity.

In 1986, Richard was awarded a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, an achievement characterized in the popular press as the “genius” award. In his case, the description was appropriate, as anyone who was exposed to the range and depth of his understanding about any number of things, including, of course, photography—or sailing ships or electricity or hydraulics—would testify. But, to my mind, Richard more nearly demonstrated through his life and actions that “genius” shares a common root with the word “genial,” the subject I feel myself pressed to write about here. For his great, good nature was at the core of his ability to accomplish so much in so many different ways, and to earn effortlessly the admiration and love of so many people. After all, who can resist loving the person who, out of hand, has just offered to help by giving over his time and knowledge in response to an earnest, or even casual, request? And, moreover, a person who, it turns out, will give more greatly the more he’s asked to, as if, like the sun, he trusts his own energy will grow as its excess burns away serving others.

We’ve recently learned that, put crudely, the more a person gives, the happier, or better, he or she will feel, a truth that’s now been traced in the workings of the brain. Richard Benson demonstrated that bit of science in how he lived, although, in his case, it appeared that feeling good, his natural state, directed his doing good, rather than the other way around. And, perhaps because of this difference, his mode and range of doing good, at least to me, seemed virtually Olympian, by being so outsized and barely earthbound (although, like the sailor he was, the man himself cantered his way bow-legged through the world). For as his students and friends all recognized, there was something large and unprecedented in his willingness to shower his energy and brilliance on everyone around him, more and yet more, today and forever. Until now.

Perhaps, rather than invoking the sun and the Olympians, it would have been enough for me to say about Richard that whenever I worked through the logic of imagining a possible model of an achieved human being for my son, I invariably ended up with him, a man who straddled with natural ease—I’d guess because of his happy marriage to Barbara—what artists often find to be the intractable contradiction between loving and art that Yeats described as “the perfection of the life or of the work.” But this isn’t the time, immediately after his death, for teasing contradictions into sense. And so I’ve been led, at least at this moment, to invoke a star, and the Greek gods, to counter sense. For Richard Benson was so unrelentingly generous, and good, and spirited in the manner that only the very best of us have been, that a nod to the heavens—or more, as each of us is inclined—seems the least we can do to honor his memory. A small enough gesture to give back to our dear friend and extraordinary man.

The first portion of this text was adapted from a talk presented by Tod Papageorge during a celebration of Richard Benson’s deanship, from 1995 to 2006, of the Yale School of Art.
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