Hello Central! Hello! Hello? Hello....
James “Richard” Beneville, 75, our beloved friend, neighbor, community member, mentor, actor and mayor completed his last earthly performance on May 11, 2020. Richard succumbed to respiratory complications at Norton Sound Hospital in Nome, the place he called home and loved for 32 years.
It is with sadness that we bid farewell to an icon, and remember the vivacious, charismatic and loving person who touched our community, and to some degree, each of our lives.
Richard always told folks he grew up as an “Air Force brat”. At a young age he had traveled and seen the world, as his father’s duty station changed. Richard’s entertaining skills were evident early on, and he was to go on to a successful career as an actor in New York City before life took a turn.
In 1982 he landed in Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow, Alaska. While he admitted the move was to distance himself from some personal battles, it also was to fulfill a premonition by his mother Louise, who had once said “Dicky, with your personality, you could probably sell a freezer to an Eskimo!” And he did just that, working in the appliance department for the Alaska Commercial Company there.
It was in 1988 that Richard arrived in Nome, a place he grew to love and which after more than 30 years, rightfully called home. And it was here that he came to terms with his alcohol issues. Of his life accomplishments, many of which brought him great pride, being sober for three decades was one thing of which he was the proudest.
Richard put his love of the arts and his acting ability to work upon his arrival. He soon joined the Nome Arts Council, of which he was a member for over 20 years and served in a leadership role. During that time he produced and directed over three dozen productions, including The Sound of Music, Music Man and Fiddler on the Roof, just to name a few. Richard could cajole even the most unlikely citizen in to participating and becoming a star.
But, it was also his love of children and a desire to provide them maximum opportunity that led him to accept a position with Nome Public Schools as Community Schools Director. In this role, he mentored a couple of generations of children who passed through the school doors during a tenure spanning 23 years.
Besides his affinity for the arts, Richard had a great love of the land and the rich history of the Nome community and surrounding area. It was as a result of his desire to share this with others that led him to start Nome Discovery Tours in 1994. Many thousand visitors, from dozens of countries, and some locals, too, enjoyed his presentations of historical events with a theatrical flare as they toured the scenic beauty of Nome’s road system. Richard sold the company, and in 2018 stepped down as the lead tour guide.
After retiring from the school district, and with more time on his hands, Richard decided to give running for mayor a shot. He never fully expected to win, but was elated with the election results. He felt it “a great honor to be Your Honor”, but more so recognized the great responsibility that had been placed on his shoulders. And, he never lost sight of citizens as individuals, in addition to us being a collective group.
Richard was the biggest cheerleader Nome has likely ever had, and chances there will be another like him in the future are slim. His passion for his community and its people was evident. He often remarked, emphatically, “I am PROUD to be Nome’s Mayor!” We will remember Richard always sporting his trademark “Hello Central” stocking cap and “I (heart) NOME!” button.
Richard was deeply saddened by the pain and anguish of domestic abuse and sexual violence victims, and wanted to insure the City was more responsive. Through his leadership, a public safety advisory commission was established. And, his hopes, repeatedly expressed, remained high that the dedicated citizens he appointed would focus in on the issues, and work to heal and strengthen the community. As President of the Alaska Conference of Mayors, he advocated for the formation of advisory commissions in other Alaska communities.
Health challenges in the last few months forced the Mayor to cancel participation in an annual planned advocacy trip to Washington, DC. But, the Nome delegation did not leave without explicit instructions. Richard continued his mayoral duties from his Anchorage hospital room.
Taking a break from dazzling the staff by belting out New York, New York, he moved on to deliver instructions to “his” delegation. The Mayor related his observation after having attended an international conference in Norway.
“The United States is in to the future of the Arctic. Other countries are already in it! We NEED the Arctic Deep Draft Port at Nome! They know it, but reinforce that with the Delegation. Thank Senator Dan, Senator Lisa and Congressman Don for all they tirelessly do for Alaska!” The marching orders were accepted and executed.
Richard was sincere, and said what he thought. Sometimes, without a filter… On another lobbying trip to DC, our group got in the wrong elevator, one reserved for senators and staff. On a floor stop, in stepped Sen. Bernie Sanders. After an awkward eye exchange, Senator Sanders broke the silence with a “How are you?” The Mayor immediately quipped back, “Old…but so are you!” before you could see he was trying to recall the comment. Too late. Bernie was not amused, and the rest of the group wanted to melt in to the floor.
The Mayor was an ardent supporter of the Iditarod, both from it’s commemoration of the historic lifesaving serum brought to Nome by dog team during the diphtheria epidemic, as well as the economic boost it brings to the community. He always looked forward to meeting old friends and making new ones. While Richard was disappointed he could not go to DC this spring, he was determined he would not miss the Iditarod start; “Come hell or high water, I’m going to be there!” And he was, in what turned out to be one of his final public duties as Mayor.
Richard thoroughly enjoyed putting on his top coat and brim hat for community celebrations. He would lead parades down Front Street, but often had to be hurried along, so as not to be bumped by a fire truck, as he had the tendency to stop to chat and greet folks as he walked by. Another persona, Nome River Sally, would occasionally appear, that being Richard in drag, to the delight of his supporters who appreciated his openness and acceptance of all people.
Richard realized his health was failing and breath could soon elude him. It was for this reason that he chose to return to Nome to spend what were to be his last days in the company of his kitty cat, Ollie. And, there is no question Richard would wish acknowledgement be given to his Nome-long friend, Bob Hafner, for the steps taken to care for him and make him comfortable.
Richard’s impact around the world has been evident by the outpouring of condolences from all corners, and the posting of pictures of his activities and contributions during his lifetime. A book could be written about this guy, and each thought and memory leads to another! He will always be remembered for his colorful personality, passion for the community and love of the arts.
Many folks walk this earth, and some like Richard leave their mark on it. He has likely already found his niche in Heaven, and quite possibly is in the middle of reciting one of his favorite Robert Service ballads. To sum it up, Richard was one class act. And, a dear friend. Thanks for the memories.