American Story: Meet the richest man on Block Island

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.

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.

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.

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.

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