Monday, May 11, 2009

COL James Benson: A Ceremony of Lessons

On June 1, 2009, after serving as president of MMI for five years, COL James Benson, USMC Ret., will assume the presidency of Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Georgia. Many of us here will be sad to see Jim and Mary leave.

Jim and Mary Benson. (Credit: Marion Military Institute)

The Bensons at the 2008 MMI Christmas Party. (Credit: MMI Alumni Office)

I’ve known Jim Benson since the mid-1990s when we were both on the staff at Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Virginia. I served BC as their archivist and museum curator. Upon his retirement from the USMC in 1995, COL Benson returned to BC, his alma mater (Class of 1965) to serve as assistant to the president (also, Class of 1965). Working his way through several responsible positions to become a vice president, Benson’s no-nonsense, can-do, attitude both impressed and scared some of the less productive members of the faculty and staff.

Founded in 1880, and affiliated with the Church of the Brethren, a pacifist denomination which is one of the Historic Peace Churches along with the Quakers and the Mennonites, Bridgewater College was not ready for a retired Marine colonel in a high leadership position – even if he was one of their graduates! Jim Benson came to kick butt and take names and everyone knew when he was walking the campus – a silent alarm would shoot around from building to building. Folks would quickly get their acts together – men would literally stand straighter, taller, as he passed by – and the College would suddenly become even more productive. Much of what Jim was involved in at Bridgewater was behind the scenes, and I never heard him take credit for a lot things that he was at least partially responsible for accomplishing. For example, BC’s football team (Division III), once in danger of becoming the worst team in division history, suddenly, in a just a few years time, shot up to No. 2 in the nation in Division III, losing by only three points (30-27) to perennial powerhouse Mount Union College of Ohio in the nationally-televised championship game in 2001. (Mount Union has won 10 NCAA Division III National Championships!)

The “miracle” of the BC football team’s turn-around can be attributed to a number of factors, of course (their great coach, Mike Clark), but Jim Benson was a prime mover and shaker behind the scenes from start to finish, and I firmly believe that he helped to give BC one of the truly great moments in its history. When I first came to Bridgewater College in 1993, the most exciting thing about the football games (the stadium was always sparsely filled) was when the cheerleaders put down their pom-poms, picked up a microphone, and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” in two-part harmony. When I left BC in 2005, the stadium was packed for every home game and the team was imbued with a “winning” attitude. (From 2001-2005, BC won five consecutive Old Dominion Athletic Conference Championships! Mike Clark remains the head football coach)

From Dr. Phillip C. Stone, President of Bridgewater College: “Col. Jim Benson is the epitome of a leader. Watching him and serving with him constitute a leadership lesson at the highest level. His impeccable integrity, his commitment to excellence in all things, and his selfless sense of duty and service make him a remarkable leader.”

The Bensons in The MMI Chapel. (Credit: MMI Alumni Office)

From Nick Picerno, Chief of Police and Director of Campus Safety at Bridgewater College: “Colonel Jim Benson’s persona reflects the very essence of the word ‘leadership.’ His service to our nation is a shining example of his strength of character and patriotism. Mediocrity has no place in his vernacular. His commitment to achieving excellence serves as an inspiration for others to emulate.”

COL James Benson takes the Review. (Credit: MMI Alumni Office)

From Mike Clark, Bridgewater College’s greatest football coach: “When athletics answered to Colonel Benson you knew you could count on two things, accountability and support. There were times when the first part of the equation could be harsh, but even after the difficult conversations you left his office knowing he just wanted you to be better. On a college campus there are many competing voices. With Jim, when the administrative door was shut, you knew you had a man who was fighting for your interests. I always felt Dr. Stone had the football vision, but Jim had the tactical skills from an administrative sense to get things changed here with football. I enjoyed many a conversation with Jim out back on his porch overlooking the college. He was a great leadership consultant.”

“As An Officer of Marines.” (Credit: USMC; Anthony Edgeworth, photographer)

Jim Benson will do well at Riverside, and they are lucky to get him. Life can be “a ceremony of lessons” (Josiah Bunting). COL Benson – whose father was killed in the Pacific during World War II – has gone from commanding Marines to working at his alma mater with its then core Brethren leadership, to helping MMI become a viable state institution.

And, yes, the lovely Mary – Jim’s better half - will “wow” them in Gainesville, just as she has in Bridgewater and in Marion.