I’m going to put Fred Benson of Block Island right here in front of you, the way he was for me for twenty, maybe twenty-five years.
Most every Sunday, June through September, Fred and I (with a rotating roster of friends) ate breakfast together at The Surf Hotel with its painted tin ceilings, where we ate on antique tables covered with gingham and lace, where Fred ordered oatmeal and prunes, “broken” eggs and coffee, bacon and toast (“Burn it”) until The Surf stopped serving to the public, even to Fred.
Then we ate at Ernie’s, and after that, at the airport diner, and, finally, in the living room of Fred’s handicapped-accessible apartment, until Fred moved off-island to South County Nursing Home at 99 years of age, but only after the island nurse and local restaurants and teams of volunteer cooks prepared months of meals, not all meeting Fred’s culinary standards, and only after one too many calls to neighbors and to the rescue squad
to lift him up from the floor where he’d fallen, aluminum walker and all.
Years earlier, Fred had made his position clear: “If they have to put me in a nursing home, take me out and shoot me.”
But we couldn’t shoot Fred.
Fred, born April 14, 1895, son of an interracial couple, placed, at age four, in a Boston orphanage, sent, at age eight, to Block Island, to work on the Milliken’s Pilot Hill farm, invited to stay.
“Best Block Island surf-fisherman ever” (if he did say so himself)
Baseball player on the summer hotel teams
Foreman of a salvage crew
First captain of the rescue squad
Five-term president of the Chamber of Commerce
Auto-mechanic-owner of the Square Deal Garage
High school baseball coach
Industrial arts teacher
Real estate salesman
Director of civil defense
Local representative of Rhode Island’s Division of Motor Vehicles
Winner, at age 70, of the Rhode Island Lottery
Founder, with friends, of the Frederick J. Benson Scholarship Fund
Recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of Rhode Island
“Local Hero” of Rhode Island Monthly magazine
Namesake of Frederick J. Benson Beach
Fred, who worked into his nineties at the big gray desk in his tiny office with its photo-covered walls, kept a sign on his desk (given by other):
“The psychiatrist is in.”
How many islanders sat in the wooden chair beside Fred’s desk to tell their tales of joy and sorrow?
Upon how many children did Fred bestow his smile and a lollipop?
How many toddlers celebrated Fred’s birthday at his annual birthday party?
As I put Fred before you, I hold in my hands the knitted blue and red watch cap Fred wore to keep his bald head warm, and I hear him saying,
“The people of Block Island are my family. I don’t know where I’ll go when I leave this earth, but if they are as good to me there as they have been here, I know I will be happy.”