YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Living Legend of Block Island : Bachelor Fred Benson, 91, Tends Community He Adopted

Charles Hillinger's America

May 23, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

BLOCK ISLAND, Rhode Island — When anyone on this wind-swept Atlantic island 12 miles off the coast of Rhode Island needs to apply for or renew a driver license, it's 91-year-old Fred Benson who administers the written and driving tests.

Benson has been the state deputy registrar of motor vehicles on this 7-mile-long, 3 1/2-mile-wide island for the past 20 years. But that job, by no means, has occupied all of Benson's time and energy.

"Fred is like Block Island's 1867 granite North Light, a monument, a signal of stability," said Connie Larue, 55, echoing the sentiments of many of the island's 600 residents. "He is a genuine folk hero, a living legend."

A lifelong bachelor, Benson has lived here since 1903, when at the age of 8 he was sent to a Block Island as a foster child. Since then he has written two books, taught high school for 14 years and was a commercial fisherman and foreman of a salvage crew working island shipwrecks. He has also worked as a carpenter, cement layer and builder, ran a taxi service, owned and operated the Square Deal Garage from 1917 to 1951, and was the island's undertaker for 10 years.

Today he operates the Motor Vehicle Department in addition to his real estate business, is a member of the Volunteer Fire Department and vice president of the island's blood bank.

But his list of accomplishments and activities does not end there. He played baseball and coached the island's baseball team, was the island civil defense director for 12 years, police commissioner, first captain of the local Rescue Squad, president of the Chamber of Commerce five times, and island Man of the Year.

Benson is still the island's official auctioneer and fence viewer, the latter having to do with settling disputes that arise over the miles of stone walls that define boundary lines. The job is a Block Island tradition that dates back to its settlement by farmers in 1661.

He has been the only black resident on the island during the 85 years he has lived here.

"I have really had a great time on Block Island from the day I arrived in September, 1903, until now," Benson said, sitting in the warmth of his office on a blustery spring day.

One wall of the Motor Vehicle Department is covered with photographs of islanders, a large portion of them children. Benson's desk drawers are full of lollipops for youngsters who scamper in and out of his office throughout the day.

Other walls are covered with photographs of boats and shipwrecks, of island scenes, of special memorabilia like the rubbing from the tomb of his friend, Capt. Ray Abel, skipper of the 110-foot Lizzy Ann that carried mail to the island for years.

Asked about the scholarship fund that bears his name, Benson explained: "Nine years ago, when I was 82, I won a $50,000 Rhode Island state lottery. The payoff was an annuity of $100 a month. It would take 46 years to get the $50,000. I also won a $500 commission for selling the ticket. I bought the ticket from myself as an official lottery salesman."

Benson said he sold the $50,000 annuity to the local bank for an instant $13,500 payoff, noting "Who knows how long I'll last?" He had told his friends that if he ever won the lottery, he would throw the biggest party in Block Island's history, which he did.

Everybody on the island was invited to the huge spread, a festive barbecue and clambake. At the party Benson announced the remainder of his winnings would go into a scholarship fund for island youths who are graduated from the local high school, go on to college and earn at least a B average their first year. The scholarship begins the second year.

Since 1977, 18 students have been awarded Fred Benson Scholarships. Money raised at an annual picnic and island cruise sponsored by Benson are added to the fund each year.

Islanders also jam dollar bills into a jar on Benson's desk--a jar that reads: "Psychiatric Help 5 cents. The Doctor Accepts Credit Cards." Benson uses the money to buy $50 U.S. Savings Bonds and every year, on April 14, celebrates his birthday with a party at which he passes out the $50 bonds to islanders 5 or younger. This year he distributed 30 bonds.

Benson, who was born in Boston in 1895, says his parents abandoned him. He was placed in an orphanage when he was 3.

"Gordon and Hannah Milliken, descendants of early island families, always cared for foster children, two at a time. I was sent to them," Benson said.

He has lived in the same house since he came to the island, sharing the premises with five generations of the Milliken family.

Benson had coached the island high school's baseball team for years while running the island's only garage. When the school principal asked Benson to teach auto shop, he said he didn't think he could qualify, having completed only two years of high school.

So, he went back to high school and was graduated when he was 55. The following fall he started teaching auto mechanics. In time he was also teaching carpentry, boat building, machine repair and driver instruction.

During summer vacation, many of Benson's students left the island for the first time in their lives, accompanied by their teacher on trips he sponsored to New York, Boston and other cities.

He taught until he was 69. Today his photograph is displayed prominently in the high school lobby.

Fred Benson knows every inch of Block Island and many stories about the Narragansett Indians, island's early occupants, who called the island Manisses , island of the little god.

For years locals encouraged Benson to write a history of the island. But writing, Benson said, "isn't like eating a piece of cake. It's hard work. I soon learned that."

Nevertheless, Benson's "Research, Reflections and Recollections of Block Island" was published in 1977 when he was 84. His second book, "Swordfishermen of Block Island," was published five years later.

Los Angeles Times Articles