Vernon Benjamin, who died Monday, June 6, will probably be remembered most as an outstanding historian and a dedicated Saugertesian. He was also many other things, among them a political figure, a talented writer, a journalist and editor, a college teacher, a relentless researcher.
Published in 2014 by Peter Mayer’s Overlook Press, Benjamin’s “History of the Hudson River Valley: From Wilderness to the Civil War” was the summit of his career. A companion volume, “History of the Hudson River Valley: From the Civil War to Modern Times,” was published by Abrams Books, a related company, two years later.
“Mayer called to see if I would be interested in writing a history of the Hudson Valley,” wrote Benjamin about the genesis of the books. “At one point he said to me, ‘You can do this, can’t you?’ I blurted out, ‘I was born to do this!’ and immediately felt embarrassed. What did I know what I was born for? No one had done anything like this before.”
Much to its author’s surprise, the 6000 copies of the first printing of the first Benjamin book quickly sold out. Benjamin had indeed been born to write it. He subsequently followed the dictates of the career, doing readings, lectures and symposia throughout the Hudson Valley and beyond. He encouraged the efforts of local historical organizations.
Vern was born into a well-known Saugerties family. When fellow townsman Maurice Hinchey knocked off H. Clark Bell in the local state Assembly race in the Watergate election year, the equally young Vern went to work for him in Albany, specializing in research on environmental and energy issues.
From 1984 to 1988, he was also a county legislator from Saugerties, and from 1990 to 1992 he served a single term as town supervisor. Local politics sometimes requires teamwork and tact, and Vernon was too independent-minded and issue-oriented for that.
Vern had the talent to pull together the facts about complex issues and wrote about them in a way that communicated well, so he got involved in journalism. He did as wonderful small publication called Toodlum Tales. He became editor for several years of The New Saugerties Times, a local weekly. There didn’t seem to be anything he didn’t know about.
His deep knowledge of his home town showed up in his work. The library, the Esopus Bend Nature Preserve, the local historical society, baseball at Cantine Field, the waterfall at the old Barclay Mill, an egret or seal at the Saugerties Lighthouse, the VFW on Memorial Day, Cloverlea, education at the high school, the village water treatment facility and the folks who tend it. Vern knew it all, And all the people, the people of Saugerties.
With a graduate degree in English literature from Long Island University, Vern became an adjunct teacher at Bard and later for many years at Marist College. Ever committed to quality, he had the reputation of being a demanding teacher. That didn’t endear him to the students who were just looking to coast through.
Those seeking to learn from a man who knew so much had a different experience, “This class was beyond hard, but this Benjamin is also a genius,” wrote one admiring Marist student. “He knows anything and absolutely everything about the Hudson Valley. You definitely need to study, and take good notes. He provides outlines, but I’d add to them. He is a really nice guy, the class is really interesting, but it definitely is a challenge.”
Yes, the man who lived for decades at 10 Finger Street had a prickly personality. He seemed to cherish his enmities as much as his friendships. But he could always be counted to stand up for the underdog, the dispossessed, those lacking in education and culture, and those dealt a bad hand. |
In 2017, after listening to a young punk in a local bar Vern wrote a letter to the editor about tolerance. “I’m not saying that the gay-bashing drunk is a victim of the times,” he wrote. “I don’t believe he is. The times have enabled him, not crucified him. He is just a sick kid. He lives in a time when the moral imperative has been set aside, trashed like language itself, when governments become dysfunctional solely because of hatred, and we all flounce about in a state of confusion.”
Vern said he would henceforth do his drinking at home.