Fred Benson devoted eight decades to Block Island, R.I., serving as police commissioner, fireman, and president of the chamber of commerce. Islanders continue to revel in sharing their cherished memories of the legendary jack-of-all trades for whom the town’s beach pavilion is named.
Born in Boston on April 14, 1895, Benson was the son of an interracial couple who abandoned him when he was four years old. After four years in an orphanage, young Benson was then placed in the foster home of the Milliken family on Block Island where he lived for most of his life; in fact, five generations of Millikens had grown up around him.
Known as “Mr. Block Island, Fred Benson dedicated himself to the people of the island, a close-knit community. Although he never married, he considered “the people of Block Island [his family].”
In 1977, when he was eighty-two, Fred won $500,000 in the Rhode Island Lottery. He threw a celebratory party on the island, which included a BBQ and clambake with ice-cream for the children; his generosity did not end there. Fred later announced that he would pay the tuition for any island child who attended college and maintained a “B” average. His devotion and philanthropic activities inspired the Fred Benson Scholarship Fund.
Fred Benson was heralded by many Rhode Islanders. According to one of Benson’s former students, Willis Dodge in a 1986 Providence Journal article, “He [Mr. Benson] is the most respected man on this island.” Another student, innkeeper Lewis Gaffett commented that islanders benefitted from Mr. Benson’s wit and wisdom.
To Fred Benson, Block Island was home. “I’d been to Detroit, to New York all over the world. I saw people not living but existing, rushing around like bugs in a bottle.” Because Fred Benson enriched those around him, he was duly recognized by several organizations including the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1982.
After a fulfilling life, Benson was laid to rest at the Island Cemetery following a fitting interdenominational service, which was held at the Block Island School.