Richard Beneville, beloved Mayor of Nome, Alaska, passed away in the early hours of May 11, 2020. He spent the day before on the phone with his brother, nieces and nephews, laughing and swapping stories about his extraordinary life.
Richard was born February 15, 1945 in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey to local dentist Bertram Byrne Beneville, Sr., and Louise Beneville. The youngest of four boys, Richard was part of a close knit family of Benevilles, Morrises and Murphies who all lived in close proximity and engaged in all manner of childhood adventures.
Richard’s father was drafted during the Korean War and became a career officer. Thus, Richard became an Air Force kid living on bases in Texas, England and Japan. This time living abroad gave Richard an appreciation for other cultures and a platform for his early theatrical endeavors. Richard was particularly close to his beloved grandmother Florence Morris, who encouraged him to develop his talents and pursue his dreams.
As a young man, those dreams led him to Broadway in New York City! Richard loved the theater – the music, the magic, the lights and the wonderful camaraderie of theater-folk. A true song-and-dance man, he toured across the United States in national productions of Cabaret, Funny Girl, The Fantastiks, and Pippin through the late 1960s and into the early 1980s. He did it all, Broadway, regional theater and dinner shows. But, as a character actor, he never quite landed the starring role of his dreams. Life as an actor and as a single, gay man, was tough, especially when much of it was spent on the road. Richard was the first to admit that his long struggle with alcohol brought it all crashing down. He was broke, unemployed, struggling with health problems and about to be evicted.
Little did he know that his true stardom was just around the corner.
In 1982, his family in Anchorage sent him a non-refundable one-way ticket to Alaska. So, he packed his bags and, with his dear dog Scrappy, left New York City. His brother Bert, helped him get a job with the AC store in Barrow. Richard showed up in a three-piece suit.
Exiled to the Far North and completely out of his element, Richard began to thrive. He loved the culture, the people, and the sense of being part of the story. He started a radio show called “Hello, Central!” He made friends and put on plays. His light was shining brighter than ever.
Then, in 1988, he moved to Nome, his true home for over 30 years. He worked for a time at the AC store but soon got a gig with the Nome Public Schools. He found A.A. and got sober. He became immersed in the local community with afterschool programs and directing, producing and performing in plays whenever he could.
His passion for the place and the people just bloomed. He started Nome Discovery Tours. For 25 years, he introduced visitors to the town he loved, the tundra, the wildflowers, the train to nowhere, the gold rush, the neighboring communities, and all of the natural and historical richness of the area.
As Richard explained in a 2009 interview: “In its heart, Alaska allows people to restart. Alaska allows you to see yourself differently. In its vastness, you can find yourself. I did.”
He became deeply involved in the Iditarod, in tourism, in community building and, ultimately, in politics. He served on the board of the Nome Arts Council for 20 years and frequently appeared in their productions. He was Vice President of the Board of the Nome Community Center. He was an unabashed promoter of tourism, not just in Nome, but for all of Alaska by serving on the Board of the Alaska Chamber of Commerce and as a member of the Alaska Travel Industry Association, the Arctic Waterways Safety Committee and the Bering Strait Economic Council. His accomplishments as Mayor of Nome for almost three full terms are too numerous to list. But, he was particularly proud of his recent work to expand the port in Nome to accommodate larger ships and advocating for a public safety commission.
There he was in his 70s, living in a place as far from New York City as you can get, living a life full of adventure and experiencing a level of success far beyond his childhood dreams. In Nome, Richard found a way of life that worked. And, it worked because of the people he found there. He frequently spoke of the patience, tolerance, generosity, and openness of his community; his Nome family. It was that family, Bob Hafner and others, who rallied around and cared for Richard as his health began to fail.
Richard is survived by his brother Jack Beneville; nephew Derrick Beneville, his wife Michele Beneville, and their children Blake and Kaitlin; nephew Trey Beneville, his wife Melisa Beneville, and their children, Brandon, Tess, Laura, and Daniel; niece Susan Beneville and her wife Leslie Absher; nephew Michael Beneville and his partner Valmira Mavraj; niece Alexandra Beneville, her husband Josh Hemani, and their children, Alia and Bowen; his late brother Peter’s former wife, Mary Hamilton; his late brother Bert’s partner, Jan Bomhoff; and, his cat, Ollie.
Richard is also survived by his chosen family in Nome; all of his friends, colleagues, students and neighbors. He loved all of you so much and it was his greatest joy to be part of your lives.
A memorial service is being planned for the near future. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in Richard’s memory in support of the Nome Community Center, www.nomecc.org, or the Nome Arts Council.