Historian, writer, editor, town supervisor and county legislator Vernon Benjamin was remembered at a memorial celebration in Saugerties on Sunday, September 4. Attendees spoke of Benjamin’s love for the town and county.
Deputy supervisor Leeanne Thornton referred to Benjamin as “The Renaissance Man of Saugerties” in her introduction. “To those who have lived in this community for many, many years, he will always be Buddy,” Thornton said.
Thornton noted Benjamin’s work with then-assemblymember Maurice Hinchey and with other people in government. In addition to his elected offices, Benjamin served for 15 years as chief of operations in Saugerties, a catchall title that meant almost anything. If a supervisor wasn’t sure how to handle a problem, Vernon was the one to turn to, she said.
Benjamin wrote prolifically in many fields, from poetry to short stories to the definitive history of the Hudson Valley. He worked many years as a newspaper reporter and editor.
Publisher Peter Mayer approached him about writing the history of the Hudson Valley until the Civil War. It took him 20 years to write that book, but write it he did. All 6000 copies were sold. He then wrote a second volume on more recent Hudson Valley history
Thornton recalled that Benjamin was “quite the jitterbug at our high-school reunion.”
In the last five or six years of his life, Benjamin became an articulate advocate for saving the Esopus Creek.
The sporting life
Filmmaker Katie Cokinos recalled agreeing to make a film about the Esopus Creek, about which she knew very little. As she delved into her research, she kept hearing Vern Benjamin’s name when she asked about experts.
One day he came to her house, and “spent more than two hours talking about the Esopus Creek, talking about Saugerties,” Cokinos said. “We recorded him, and then we took the recordings and tried to decide what to do with them.”
Cokinos brought outtakes in which Benjamin talked about ice hockey and the league his father played in to the memorial.
Hockey was on all the ponds, Benjamin says in the film. “It wasn’t as organized as baseball, but here it happened between the bridge and this tree. That’s where the game would be.”
Benjamin recalled the breakfasts or morning coffee when the police chief and other teammates would get together at Vernon’s father’s house before the game. Vernon’s father was also the truant officer. Benjamin recalled in the film an occasion when he was across the street from some kids. When his father drew up and called three kids, his father stayed in the driver’s seat looking straight ahead while the kids changed a tire “because if he had seen them he would have had to do something.”
When his father saw a kid playing hooky, Vern said in the film, “He would take him to one of the fishing holes, He used to say if a kid is fishing he’s getting an education.”
Poet and historian
Suzanne Bennett of Shout Out Saugerties said that Benjamin was also a literary writer. But as they looked further into his work, Bennett and Will Nixon were surprised to see how much he had produced in poems, and short stories.
While they knew Vernon Benjamin mainly through his historical and political writing, “Suzanne and I were surprised to find he had a master’s in English and his thesis was on Jean Genet, a French playwright,” said Nixon.
“What a wonderful writer he was,” said Nixon. The first volume of the Hudson Valley history begins with a poetic description of the Catskills in the dawning light.
A piece read by David Smilow illustrated Benjamin’s ability to give the description of an eclectic collection of household objects poetic significance.
A short story, part of which was read by Smilow, described the paper industry that once lined the Esopus Creek.
In “Five Ways to Love Thee,” read by Philip Levine, a flea describes its erotic relationship with an unknown woman.
Benjamin’s affinity with motorcycles was mentioned in a poem of his read by Jared Reinmuth, a motorcyclist.
In his research into Benjamin’s life, Nixon read his resume. Along with the usual education and employment background, he saw “newspapers, 1969 to 1982,” Benjamin had been a bureau chief, reporter, editor and columnist.
Keep on truckin’
That next piece was primarily on his diagnosis of Hodgkins’ disease at the age of 36. At the time he had been a dispatcher in the trucking industry, and “we had a strike, and I had to hang around all day in case there was any attempt at rioting or violence. While this was unlikely, it was necessary to be prepared, so I offered to paint the hothouse floor.” The rest of the piece described the painting job and its frustrations.
After reading a poem by Benjamin about the paintings that littered his house, Sarah Mecklem recalled that the poem was a true description. “Walking into his house was a gallery owner’s nightmare,” she recalled. “There would be pictures on the landing, one hanging from the door frame.” His collection included work by friends, pictures of dogs, fishing themed pictures and more. She brought several of his favorites to the reading.
Philip Levine read a poem based on a conversation with a personalized death, an attempt to argue with him, and finally to elude him.
Mikhail Horowitz read Benjamin’s poem about the discomforts and indignities of airline flight.
Read by David Smilow, the final poem in the series was about one by John Burroughs, whom Nixon said was one of Benjamin’s favorites. It was something of a lament to the passage of youth and the rigors of old age.
“My eyes have dulled these later days, the freshness of my youth is gone,” the poem opens. Later in the work, Benjamin says, “I twitch my tail to you, John, and to these fading afternoons and birds that fall across the veil and chastise me for my thoughts of gloom.”
A beautiful celebration
Following the formal program, Joan Reinmuth read a poem largely about Benjamin’s pickup truck, which arrived wet on a dry evening and wet on a dry one. The bed on one occasion was filled with books. “Did you rob the Library of Congress?” he was asked.
Bruce Weber shared memories of his relationship with Vernon Benjamin.
Vernon Benjamin’s daughter Rachel said her father would have been impressed and proud. “Vernon would have loved this,” she said. “This was such a beautiful celebration of his life.”
She drew laughter as she described cleaning out Benjamin’s house and moving all the books around.
The tribute was a revelation that there was so much more to Vernon Benjamin than the public image.