Mayor Richard Beneville is laid to rest after procession through town
On Saturday, under blue skies and a stiff breeze, the late Mayor of Nome Richard Beneville was laid to rest at Belmont Cemetery in Nome. Instead of leading the Midnight Sun Parade and playing a big part in the annual bank robbery, Richard Beneville went on his final procession through town as Nomeites came together to say their final good byes to James Richard Beneville.
According to Beneville’s wishes, his grave — marked with a cross sporting a top hat and the greeting Hello Central — is facing the East West Runway of Nome’s airport “so he can see the planes come in.”
Flanked by pall bearers Bob Hafner, Kenneth Hafner, Nicholas Klescewski, Boogles Johnson, Mark Smith and Jake Kenick, Beneville’s coffin rode in Nome’s first fire truck, a 1937 Chevy, and was followed by Nome Volunteer Fire Dept. and Ambulance vehicles. The procession wound through town while Beneville’s favorite musical songs were played on the PA system on Front Street. Once the procession arrived on Front Street, people were invited to walk behind the coffin to Anvil City Square, where his memorial service was held under the Iditarod Burled Arch with people gathered on spaced chairs to allow for social distancing.
Beneville’s friend Bob Hafner gave a short welcome speech. “I don’t know what to tell you about Richard that you don’t already know,” Hafner said. “He wanted to make a big impact on the world but it wasn’t from the place he came from, the big stage in New York, but a humble place like Nome, Alaska.”
Dan Hobbs delivered the opening prayer and John Handeland read the eulogy. In between speakers, the sound system played recordings of Beneville’s singing, which brought tears to the eyes of many present. Handeland said that while hospitalized, Richard would suddenly burst out in a song and nurses and hospital staff would gather around in his room to listen to his impromptu performance.
Dan Hobbs highlighted Beneville’s good humor and kindness. “Kindness was the hallmark of Richard Beneville’s life,” he said. “He was no saint, but he had the ability to make you feel like a million bucks.” Hobbs said that he would from now on use the phrase “Hello Central” as code language for being kind.
Arlo Hannigan and Kristine and Ian McRae performed songs and Jake Kenick read a poetic tribute to Beneville. City Manager Glenn Steckman took to the stage to play voice messages from Beneville’s nieces and nephews who couldn’t travel to Nome at this time due to pandemic considerations. They spoke about another of Beneville’s favorite expression: “You are my hero.” His niece Susan said in her voice message that her uncle exactly knew when to say it to lift a person up. “Each and everyone of you were his hero,” she said. His oldest nephew remembered last year’s trip with Beneville to New York, where they visited Central Park and the statue of Balto. Beneville would sit down next to the statue of Balto and talk with complete strangers about Balto, the Iditarod and Nome.
After family spoke, several people stepped forward to share their favorite memories. Nome Elementary Principal Elizabeth Korenek-Johnson remembered him when she was in fifth grade, part of a ballet troupe and Beneville would help out with their choreography.
Ukallaysaaq Okleasik met Beneville when they both served on the Arts Council board. He said that Beneville’s gift was not only to inspire one with a vision but also see it through and make the vision happen. “He would bring out the best in us,” said Okleasik. He identified another code that Beneville liked to use. “Richard’s way of saying ‘I love you’ was by saying ‘You are my hero.’”
Auggie Krutzsch of AKAU Gold Resort told the story of how Richard Beneville inspired the Krutzsch family to branch out their business from gold mining to gold mining tourism. Krutzsch remembered laughingly that Beneville kept on showing up at the Krutzsch mine at Anvil Mountain with tourists to show them a bona fide mining operation. “We were like: What the heck, go away,” Auggie remembered. But then came a check and Auggie said “Well, Hello Central!” Krutzsch said Beneville took him under the wing and introduced him to tourism. Now AKAU Gold is a resort that developed into a successful business and welcomes recreational gold miners at the Krutzsch mine. Beneville would every Saturday visit the miners for a talk about Nome, a song or two and just to mingle and chat with the tourists, enjoying his performances and stories. For years, he had done the same for the GPAA mine at Cripple Creek.
Autumn Falls stepped forward and remembered Richard for something that he made no secret of: the battle with alcoholism. But Richard won and he still attended AA meetings. “This is the end of his meetings,” said Falls, and then she recited the Serenity Prayer.
The Pioneers of Alaska, Igloo Nr. 1. Charlie Lean, Lew Tobin and Erik Noet spoke on Beneville personifying the virtues of Pioneers: his empathy, resourcefulness, generosity and knowledge.
The King Island Dancers gave him one last performance and the memorial service concluded with Emily Riedel singing Ave Maria.
From Anvil City Square, Beneville’s coffin was taken to the cemetery, where a small group of friends and city officials laid him to rest.