Storied Lucy Wilson Benson recalled as ‘fearless, formidable’

  • Lucy Wilson Benson GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Lucy Wilson Benson, who died July 17 at 93. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Lucy Wilson Benson was once described by the Boston Globe as “the most influential woman on the Massachusetts political scene.” GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/31/2021 7:20:13 AM

AMHERST — Lucy Wilson Benson’s appointment as undersecretary of state for Security Assistance under President Jimmy Carter in 1977 put the Amherst resident in the most prominent U.S. State Department position achieved by a woman to that point.

Benson’s selection came following a six-year tenure as the national president of the League of Women Voters, when the organization gave support to President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, and her service as secretary of Human Services for Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis beginning in 1974. The latter position ended less than two years later when she resigned to protest cuts to social service programs.

A 1949 Smith College graduate and Amherst resident since 1950, Benson, 93, died of congestive heart failure July 17 but remained until the end someone who was not shy about expressing her opinions.

“Lucy was just totally outspoken. She was fearless. She was formidable,” said retired state representative Ellen Story of Amherst.

During her nearly quarter-century in office, Story regularly visited Benson for tea. “She liked the fact that a woman was representing Amherst in the Legislature,” Story said.

As early as 1966, Benson was described by the Boston Globe as “the most influential woman on the Massachusetts political scene.” A decade later, she would be one of 11 people chosen to advise Carter on the makeup of his Cabinet and other high-level appointments, before Secretary of State Cyrus Vance picked her for the undersecretary job.

Nancy Eddy, who served on the Amherst Select Board, said for most current members of the Amherst League of Women Voters, Benson is a distant luminary, someone to admire and venerate. For Eddy, though, Benson was a teacher, a model citizen and a friend.

“She taught me how to organize and run a meeting, how to determine priorities for action, how to motivate a group of people to take action on issues of importance,” Eddy said. Eddy recalls that, inspired by Benson, she climbed staircases in apartment buildings in the flats of Holyoke while six months pregnant to collect signatures calling for governmental reforms.

As a Smith College classmate and best friend, Leigh Berrien Smith said she will remember Benson’s sense of humor, and her hosting brunches every five years to cap off reunion events.

“She was an outstanding alum, and I think everyone admired her greatly,” Smith said.

Cynthia Brubaker, who first joined a League of Women Voters chapter in Florida in 1969, said Benson was a personal heroine and a superb role model for women.

“She was a strong leader and went on from there to achieve many more outstanding things in her life,” Brubaker said. “I never expected to live in Amherst, Mass., and have the great fortune to get to know Lucy.”

When the Amherst chapter of the League recognized longtime members several years ago, Benson reflected on when the organization advocated for kindergarten in Amherst schools. “You don’t know how revolutionary that was in 1961,” Benson said at the time.

A 1965 Globe editorial, following government reforms that removed excessive powers from the Governor’s Council and the passage of a constitutional amendment making the governor’s post a four-year term, described Benson as making the League “unquestionably the most powerful political action group in the state.”

In the early 1960s, Benson also served on a legislative commission that gave more fiscal independence to the University of Massachusetts, and later on special committees to study salaries of state employees and to research the educational effects of racial imbalance in the public schools.

As national president of the League, Benson endorsed federal Community Action anti-poverty programs and described Johnson’s Great Society programs as underfunded.

In a 1968 Gazette profile, Benson explained that the League is about preserving democracy.

“If we wish to have a democratic government, we have to work at it, we have to take care of it. If we don’t pay attention to it, by the time we get around to realizing what is happening, it may be too late,” she said.

Working for the Dukakis administration, Benson had a personal driver, neighbor Bernard “Bernie” Moreau, who got her to Boston, though the cost of this proved controversial. As former representative Story notes, though, the state benefited from Benson working in the car while traveling.

At the State Department, her job was coordination and policymaking related to military aid, U.S. sales of conventional arms abroad, proliferation of nuclear weapons and the spread of nuclear technology.

Kenneth Rosenthal, a founder of Hampshire College, said Benson was on the convocation panel when the college opened in 1970. Benson, he said, was able to have discussions with people of all political affiliations and her devotion to Amherst was evident, with a portrait of former Police Chief Frank Hart hanging inside her home.

“She was a person of wide-ranging interests. Her demeanor was always pleasant and warm,” Rosenthal said.

Her interest in international affairs never waned. She always had copies of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, Rosenthal said, and she wanted to explore what was happening in European and African countries.

Benson’s husband, Bruce, was a professor of physics at Amherst College, and they were married for 40 years until his death in 1990.

Benson’s willingness to break with convention was illustrated, Story recalled, when she told by the wife of another faculty member that she would have to wear a hat and gloves while doing grocery shopping at Louis’ Foods in the town center. Benson refused this, saying she only owned one hat, the one in which she was married.

In an early 1970s profile in the Gazette, at a time when the women’s liberation movement was taking off, Benson said she made sure her wedding vows didn’t have a clause about obeying her husband. “One thing I wasn’t going to do was promise I was going to obey anybody,” she said.

Following her career in politics, Benson remained an active member of the League and got involved in local projects, including serving on Smith College’s board of trustees, becoming chairwoman of the board of directors for the Amherst Cinema and remaining a friend to the Family Outreach program for at-risk families. Several years ago she was recognized by program director Laura Reichsman, who said Benson “embodies what it means to be an exemplary global and local citizen.”

Benson’s physical attributes stood out, as well, including her height and her perfectly coiffed hair. “She was tall and had wonderful posture, and she had her hair done every week until quite recently at Hair by Harlow,” Story said.

Eddy said she appreciated that Benson always asked her about her children’s accomplishments, and was “tickled” when one of her grandchildren sought to accept a standing invitation to swim in Benson’s pool.

“I will miss my monthly lunches with her, a glass of good wine, perhaps a vodka martini — her favorite — and in-depth conversation about recent political issues,” Eddy said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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