1. Headline
  1. Headline

Video: He devoted 83 years to serving Rhode Island town

By
TODAY books
updated 3/15/2013 1:59:41 PM ET 2013-03-15T17:59:41

Fred Benson devoted eight decades to Block Island, R.I., serving as police commissioner, fireman, and president of the chamber of commerce multiple times. In an excerpt from his upcoming book “American Story,” Bob Dotson visits the richest man in town —  who lived in an unheated room in a home he didn’t even own.Perhaps the past is more precious to those who have more of it. I’ve collected a lot of memories, gathered from story to story over the course of 40 years, but none is more indelible than the one I got from Fred Benson, the richest man on Block Island, Rhode Island, who lived his life in an unheated room in a home he didn’t even own.

For more information about Bob Dotson’s ‘American Story’ book, click here

Benson was eight when a farmer named Gurd Milliken took him in, and eight decades later he still lived in that little space that Gurd had given him. Five generations of Millikens had grown up around him, and though they’d repeatedly asked Fred to move into a bedroom downstairs, where it was warm, he always refused.

Bob Dotson going on ‘American Story’ book tour

A few years back Benson won $500,000 in the Rhode Island state lottery. He threw the biggest birthday party anyone can remember and invited all the children on the island. After the hot dogs and soda pop, Benson announced he’d pay the tuition of any child there who wanted to go to college. Benson always thought of his community first. He had been its police chief, fire chief, head of the rescue squad, baseball coach, teacher, and five-time president of the Chamber of Commerce. When there was a housing shortage on Block Island, at fifty-four Benson went to college, got a degree in education, and taught high school shop. The island’s four builders all got their start with Fred.

  1. More in books
    1. Harlan Coben returns with ‘Six Years’
    2. ‘I Would Die 4 U’: How Prince became an icon
    3. ‘Until I Say Good-Bye’: Living for love in the face of ALS
    4. Letters from the life of George H.W. Bush
    5. Mom turns sleeping baby into fairy-tale star

He never married, never had children, but for 82 years, he dedicated himself to the people who lived on a sliver of land off the coast of Rhode Island. We were sitting together at sunset, watching waves crash against the rocky cliffs, waiting for the Block Island ferry to take me back to the mainland. Benson looked past the lighthouse lulled by the waves. At last he turned and told me a story.

“When I was a little boy, the farmers used to meet for dinner on Saturday night. Each one would boast about his kids. Gurd Milliken had eight sons and me. I sat way down at the end of a long table.” Benson paused to look at a pelican on a pole.

“Gurd rose from his chair one night and pointed a long finger past all of his boys. He pointed right at me. ‘You fellas wait and see what Fred Benson does. He’ll be the best of ’em all.’”

Benson stopped talking for a long moment to stare at the sunset.

“I hope he knows how I turned out,” he said quietly. Then, more intensely, he repeated, “I hope he knows how I turned out.”

Fred Benson found a safe harbor and then showed others the way.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from American Story: A Lifetime Search for Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things, Copyright © Bob Dotson, 2013

For more information about Bob Dotson’s upcoming book “American Story,” click here.

Bob Dotson will be doing personal appearances and signings in the months ahead. For details, click here.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

More on TODAY.com

  1. John Stillwell / PA

    Prince William, Duchess Kate take legal action to shield Prince George

    10/2/2014 12:34:23 PM +00:00 2014-10-02T12:34:23
  1. At least 100 people have come in contact with US Ebola patient, Texas says

    Those potential contacts will be investigated, questioned and monitored to determine exactly how close they got to Thomas Eric Duncan and his family, Dallas County health officials said Thursday.

    10/2/2014 3:48:28 PM +00:00 2014-10-02T15:48:28
  1. Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images

    Zoe Saldana confirms she's having twins with cutest hint

    10/2/2014 3:02:21 PM +00:00 2014-10-02T15:02:21
  1. Samantha Okazaki / TODAY

    At Home with TODAY: Step inside Jill Martin's incredible closet

    10/2/2014 12:19:06 PM +00:00 2014-10-02T12:19:06