- Editor's Note: This is the second of a two-part Beth Bales column remembering , the Geneva second-grade teacher who died unexpectedly on Saturday, April 7. The Geneva History Center will name its Community Center in honor of Bencini, at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 21, at the History Center. Visitation is at Malone Funeral Home, beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday, followed by a service at 1 p.m.
Mary Bencini's influence in Geneva and on Geneva students was widespread.
The Geneva second-grade teacher at Western Avenue School and longtime community volunteer impacted so many lives.
Emily Stith started to understand that while at Michigan State University. Emily was in a freshman-level “Introduction to Teaching” course.
“I was shocked to see Ms. Bencini's smiling face pop up on my lecture hall’s screen talking about her love and reading and her goal to instill that same passion into her students," she said. "I guess I should not have been surprised to see her that morning; her passion for teaching was great and widespread."
Another former student, studying education in college, wrote: "She was one of the most inspirational teachers I ever had. She taught me the importance of giving back to the community you live in and to have compassion for other people. She is a person I will always remember and I will pass on what she taught me to her own students.”
Rebecca Stith, now a senior at Northwestern, said that while she’s had many great teachers, she regards Mary as her most influential one. Mary’s family book clubs and summer reading clubs helped instill in Rebecca a love of reading that remains an essential part of her life and “probably also has a lot to do with the academic successes I have had thus far.”
In addition, Mary had another huge influence: one of the Stith family dogs.
“I knew my family needed a beagle after hearing Ms. Bencini’s stories of her childhood beagle, Ralph ... (the effort took two years, she said). Much to some of my neighbors’ dismay, these stories are the reason that we have such a loud, roaming dog.”
Rebecca also believes that Mary’s habit of welcoming the whole family, and not just her students, helped her own father become more engaged with his children’s education.
“I think Ms. Bencini helped him to get involved in reading with my siblings and me rather than just letting my more literary mom (School Board member Mary Stith) be the only parent involved in our educations. I'm pretty sure he enjoyed it too, considering he still talks about Ms. Bencini's book club fondly.”
Dan Wagner, a former newspaper reporter, credits Mary with helping him change careers.
“When I worked at the Chronicle and would go and try to find stories at the schools, Mary is one of several teachers who put the teaching bug in my ear, making it look like a fun and worthwhile career.” He’s a teacher today.
Mary Stith said she got to know Mary Bencini first via the classroom, and that they stayed in touch and crossed volunteer paths, and friendship bloomed. When Mary was elected to the School Board, she said, “I would sometimes reverse the requests she had made of me as a parent and have her help with promoting the schools ... not that she wasn't always doing that anyway.
“The great thing about Mary was she didn't always agree with everything, about the board and district and what we should do, but she would tell me and we could discuss it and still, when push came to shove, she supported things because she felt it best for kids.”
Mary Bencini passed along the concerns and inputs of others with whom she crossed paths which was invaluable, Mary Stith said. “We shared a love for all things kids and also for the greater good of Geneva.”
Mary Stith talked about some of the many volunteer endeavors, including taking oral histories and the district’s retired teachers group, to name a few, with which Mary Bencini was involved. She mentioned the many ways in which Mary Bencini tried to get Geneva students involved, such as the culinary arts students preparing the food for the annual Geneva History Center creche luncheons.
“How could one woman pack so much into a relatively short life? She wasn't perfect, and she could get in your face about those things passionate to her, and I always respected that ... because I knew that her motives were always about doing the right thing. I think her greatest legacy will be the example she set as just a regular person making the most of every day and doing so much for so many, never about herself.”
This is a very long piece–probably twice as long as typical, at least—yet there is much I trimmed. It is a testament to not only the enormous impact Mary Bencini had, but also the number of lives she touched.
The closing here must go to Ibby Stith, now a teacher—second grade, as Mary was—in the Indian Prairie School District. Mary mentored Ibby as she began her teaching career; Mary sold, and gave Ibby old classroom books and books about writing, which was Mary’s passion.
“I wouldn’t be half the teacher I am now without her ideas, materials and support,” said Ibby, adding, “I hope I can become the kind of teacher she was.”
Mary’s death has prompted Ibby to think of her interactions with her own students, and to see each interaction “as an opportunity to improve their lives in some ways, maybe not even academically, but personally, lovingly, and as a friend. Life is too short to get hung up on grades and behaviors.”
She’ll miss Mary dearly, Ibby added. But she hopes “that her legacy lives on through my classroom and the kind of teacher that I am and will become ... all because I knew her.”
I can think of no finer legacy for a teacher.