A Legacy of Service: Remembering John Benton, B’73

March 28, 2024
John Benton leaves behind a storied legacy, but what he was most proud of was the number of people he helped.
John Benton, B'73

John Benton leaves behind a storied legacy, but what he was most proud of was the number of people he helped, recalled his husband, David Briggs. Benton came from humble beginnings, raised by his mother, a young widow, in Dinwiddie, Va., and recognized the importance of giving back. “If John believed in someone, he offered his heart and soul and did everything he could to support them,” Briggs said.

Benton passed away unexpectedly in September of last year. He spent his life as a public servant, advocating for people and causes, bettering his community, and supporting his alma mater. He had a 45-year career in the management, administration, and operations of large government and non-profit organizations and 17 years with the Smithsonian Institution, last serving as Deputy Under Secretary Emeritus—a lifetime appointment and honor. He held prior positions in the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Health and Human Services and the Virginia state government.

“He was proud of being able to help others succeed, but he was not one to want the spotlight,” Briggs said. “He was a behind-the-scenes person. He was passionate about what he did but was not looking for recognition. When it came, he was often very humbled.”

Briggs and Benton met in a grocery store in 1978 and married in 2013. They celebrated their 45th anniversary in 2023. Over their years together, they came to feel like their community was their family and were devoted to furthering the work of organizations near their home and close to their heart in Arlington, Va., such as the Arlington Community Foundation, the Arlington Free Clinic, the Arlington Commission for the Arts, and several others. He was also appointed to the board of the Science Museum of Virginia and served multiples times as a grants panelist for the Virginia Commission for the Arts. They held many board positions, and when Benton retired in 2018, they found time to do more. In 2021, they established the Fund for Arlington Arts and the Benton-Briggs Endowed Arts Fund to fund and support arts in their community in perpetuity. 

Benton always tried to help people advance themselves, relishing the opportunity to serve as a mentor to young professionals and students. He created an internship program at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and would often write letters of recommendation for college admissions. Many of those letters were for students at the University of Richmond.

Benton graduated from the University in 1973. He majored in business, studied the pipe organ, sang with the Glee Club, and participated in Omicron Delta Kappa, the Honor Council, and Greek life. He was an active and proud alumnus, recently elected to join the University’s Alumni Board, and served as co-chair of his 50th Anniversary Reunion Committee, helping to raise more than $2 million for Richmond.

He loved campus and took every opportunity to welcome people and show it off. He had a fondness for his dorm, Robins Hall, the Robins School, the Cannon Memorial Chapel, and the Modlin Center. He often said he was the product of scholarships and the work-study programs at UR, which allowed him to attend UR. During an interview for the Alumni Magazine, he said, “It allowed me to get where I am today. Without that support, I would never have been able to go to Richmond.”

“Something changed over those four years he was at Richmond,” Briggs said. “The academic engagement and nurturing environment were so important to him. He always wanted to recognize that and how important financial aid was in getting there.”

Benton recognized the sacrifices his mother made to help him receive an education, and they often discussed, during her later years, finding a way to help other students obtain the great start in life and career that he had at UR. In her honor, to help other students, and in recognition of her love and music of the arts, in 2011, he established the John F. Benton Scholarship in Music and the Arts in Memory of Dorothy Turner Benton.

“John was the most ‘other-focused’ alumnus with whom I had a great pleasure to know over several years,” said Anne Latham Holdaway, parent giving officer with the Office of Advancement. “His love for his alma mater, coupled with his deep commitment to providing student assistance, was evident in each of our interactions. It meant the world to him knowing he was supporting scholars who might not be able to afford a Richmond education.”

"John embodied the core values of the Robins School with his dedication to service, compassion, and application of his business skills for the good of others,” said Mickey Quiñones, dean of the Robins School. “He's a role model for our students, demonstrating how to blend professional success with meaningful contributions to society. His actions spoke to the heart of what we strive to instill in every student.”

Benton will be posthumously inducted into the Robins School Alumni Hall of Fame. Details of a program in his honor are forthcoming.