- Editor's Note: I actually divided Beth's original article into three parts—but we'll call this the first of a two-part Beth Bales column remembering , the Geneva second-grade teacher who died unexpectedly on Saturday, April 7. We made a separate story of the announcement that 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.
Like so many Genevans, I was shocked on Easter morning (via Facebook!) to discover , longtime Geneva teacher and volunteer, advocate for children and community causes, had died the night before. All I could think was, what a huge loss for the community.
It was a thought echoed and repeated that day, and all the days since. Her Facebook page filled up with remembrances and tributes.
And I didn’t know her that well! We were certainly acquaintances; we knew each other and I talked with her upon many occasions in regard to various events—and they were varied, and many—she might be working on.
So ... I give the floor, in terms of trying to get a look at Mary Hogan Bencini, whose , to those who knew her so much better.
Terry Emma worked with Mary at the Geneva History Center. It seemed strange, really, to both of them that when they met, probably six or so years ago, that it hadn’t happened years earlier. “But right away, we just clicked,” Emma said.
She, as so many people have, cited Mary’s tireless volunteerism. “She did anything that needed to be done. She didn’t even need to be asked.”
And she was constantly coming up with new ideas, to reach more people and draw them into a cause. For example, she started the History Center’s letter-writing efforts, with board members hand-writing notes to people they knew, who might want to be members or renew memberships. (This works, by the way. In 2011, I somehow just never filled out our renewal; it fell through the bill-paying cracks. I got a personal note from a board member whom my husband and I both know, and the check, as they say, was soon in the mail.) To ensure the cards got written, Mary brought the History Center notecards to the meetings.
“Brilliant. It was simple, yet it works,” Emma said.
And of course, Mary Bencini was known for her notes, which she wrote to all her former students when she saw them mentioned in the paper or heard about something they were doing.
Mary also read the newspaper to her students, so they would know what was going on in the community at large, not just the smaller world of . “They got them realizing there’s a world out there, that you help out, you partake in your community,” Emma said. “She didn’t just talk about about it. She lived it.”
Ibby (Elizabeth) Stith points out that Mary Bencini wasn’t even her teacher. Mary had taught Ibby’s youngest sister, Rebecca, and brother Will. Despite that, Ibby said, she came to know Mary personally just the same. “I think that was always part of her mission ... to reach the families of the students just as much as the students themselves.”
Thus, Mary gave assignments that involved parents and siblings, including family book clubs that had the whole family reading a book together. The second-grade “moon journal” prompted Will and dad Herb to sit outside, together, just looking at the stars and the moon, Ibby said. “She didn’t just impact her students. She brought families together ... and made us a community of learners who LOVE to learn.”
Many students commented on the notes and newspaper clippings on honor rolls and honors and community involvement Mary sent them, years after leaving her classroom. Ibby has her own collection and pointed out, “Can I remind you, once again, she was not even my teacher?!”
Elizabeth Arway’s mother died the year Elizabeth was in Mary’s second-grade class.
“She went more than out of her way for my brothers and me,” Elizabeth said.
Eighteen years later, she still has the “get well soon” letters Mary encouraged her students to write to Elizabeth. And Elizabeth still has the “alternative” project she made for Mother’s Day that year, which came about a month after her mother’s death. “I remember Ms. Bencini holding my hand, and I remember her at my mother’s funeral. “What a wonderful, caring and supportive person!”
Nico Casasanto, now a senior at Yale University, said he spent time this past summer going through a collection of old schoolwork, carefully saved from kindergarten on. He noted his second-grade collection was the largest, by far. It wasn’t that that year was the most productive.
“Rather, it speaks to the enormous amount of care, pride and encouragement Ms. Bencini had for her students, as about half the volume of these papers was feedback from Ms. Bencini, both to my second-grade self and my parents," he said. "I was amazed to thumb through all of her notes and discover the extreme detail she would give and insight she would offer. The time, effort and care she invested impressed me beyond words.”
He, too, noted the clippings and notes that continued, even into college. He regrets not taking the time to stay in touch, “because it occurs to me now that her students were her children. And despite the fact that she had several hundreds of them, she felt toward each one as if he/she were her only. She was truly an amazing educator who saw the absolute best in everyone who entered her room and whose dedication to helping her students reach their greatest potential will continue to impact the community for years to come.”