It's a bit hard to decide what Peotone's Richard Benson is best known for — 63 years as an educator, 45 years as a football referee, 26 years as a church organist, longtime nursing home volunteer, eight years as Peotone mayor and foe of the proposed third Chicagoland airport or consummate collector of Beanie Babies.
Illinois State University's College of Education focused on his "63-year career as an educator and civil servant" and inducted the 84-year-old Benson into its Hall of Fame on Friday.
Benson, a native of Sheffield, Ill., about 115 miles west of Peotone, enrolled in Illinois State Normal University in 1950. "When I went to Normal, I thought, 'Oh, this is too big for me,'" he said. His high school class at Sheffield had 32 students and just 14 graduated. Normal was graduating 500 to 600 students per year and had nearly 2,300 students in 1950.
Benson adapted and stayed five years, leaving with a teaching degree and a master's in educational administration. "I had a very good five years there," he said. "I was a bookworm. I got all good grades."
Last year, Benson committed $100,000 to ISU for what he called "a center for developing all types of computer literacy programs for teachers to learn high tech." A year ago, the ISU board approved naming the facility in DeGarmo Hall in his honor.
Benson first taught high school and junior high English for two years at Princeton, 15 miles from home in Sheffield.
After two years, he left for Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, where he taught teachers education classes, supervised student teachers and was assistant principal at university's laboratory high school.
He also met his wife, Barbara Jean, there. She was a math teacher. They've been married 58 years. She's active with the Girl Scouts and has been running the Helping Hands Food Pantry at Peotone for 10 years.
They left Carbondale for East Aurora, where Benson worked just before they came to Peotone in 1965, when Richard was appointed assistant superintendent and principal at the junior high and three grade schools. "I was like a doctor with a little black bag," he said. "When an emergency came up, I went. I started the first kindergarten here in 1965. It was the start of emphasis on early childhood education."
When he retired from Peotone schools in 1989, he said: "I never met a student I didn't like ... They all have good in them. Sometimes you must look a little farther, but it is there."
"My point was, if I came down hard one day, I always talked to those students the next day and the next day. ... I did not believe they could learn anything sitting in the hall."
He also taught adult education at Kankakee Community College when it was founded 50 years ago.
He taught at Governors State University "in one room in a warehouse in Monee" when it started and continued for 22 years in teachers education and business. GSU honored him for community service in 1997.
He also taught adult basic education for many years at Joliet Junior College until 2012. He was a JJC distinguished service award winner in 1996, when he retired from that college for the first time. Benson said he has helped more than 2,000 area residents get their GEDs. "People needed them to hold their jobs and their union positions," he said.
He also taught at ISU and the College of St. Francis in Joliet.
He's worked for the Illinois State Board of Education, evaluating school districts and supervising a program for temporary district administrators. He also worked for the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, evaluating jobs programs.
He stopped collecting Beanie Babies eight years ago and said he has the complete set. "They're all brand new and clean. No one's touched them," he said. "I want to find a place to donate them all. Maybe a hospital."