Nome Mayor Richard Beneville, a longtime champion of regional culture, history and the Bering Strait city’s importance in the Arctic, has died, city officials reported on Monday.
Beneville, 75, succumbed to pneumonia overnight after a period of declining health, the city of Nome said in a statement posted on Facebook.
“Mayor Beneville will always be remembered for his colorful personality, passion for the community and love of the arts. Many folks walk this earth, and some like Richard leave their mark on it. And one of the last things he was heard to say was his trademark greeting, “HELLO CENTRAL!” the city’s statement said.
Beneville was in his third term as mayor, and he used that platform to reach out to the rest of the Arctic.
He was one of the first to sign onto an Arctic Mayors Forum, a circumpolar group created in 2017 to collaborate on common northern concerns. He was a champion of Nome’s ambitions to become a full-service deepwater port serving increasing vessel traffic in and out of the Arctic through the Bering Strait. He represented Nome in organizations like the Arctic Waterways Council. And, as the owner and operator of a tour company, he was a tireless promoter of Nome-area history and its Indigenous cultures.
Responding to Arctic climate change was a top priority for him.
“The increase in ocean traffic, the changes in our climate and environment are in many ways scary and at the same time offer us great opportunities,” he told the Nome Nugget newspaper in 2017, when he was running for re-election. “I am proud to say of our community of Nome that we are preparing for that future; working to preserve the qualities of our lives as we face a changing environment and being are aware of our history and cultures as we proceed.”
Beneville had a rich life history that took him from the bright lights of Broadway to the one-time gold-rush town near the Bering Strait.
Alcoholism cost him his career as an actor and dancer in New York City. His brother, an investment adviser working in Anchorage, brought him to Alaska in 1982, and Beneville got a job with the Alaska Commercial Company, a general-goods retailer with roots in Alaska that go back to the days of the Russian-American era.
He first worked in Barrow, as Utqiagvik was then known, and then settled in Nome in 1988. For 23 years, he was director of Nome’s community schools program, organizing art classes and theatrical performances. He founded and operated Nome Discovery Tours before launching his late-in-life political career. As mayor, he continued to be involved in the arts and cultural preservation championing projects like the rescue and restoration of the house where legendary musher Leonhard Seppela lived.
Theater is relevant to the challenges — and opportunities — presented by climate change in the Arctic, he said in a presentation last year to the Wilson International Center for Scholars.
He spoke about the “sense of drama about the Far North” and the dramatic changes that he said require big investments in infrastructure, especially in the port expansion that Nome is seeking. “It’s not a build-it-and-they-will-come. They’re already coming,” he said in his presentation.
John Farrell, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, said the theatrical flair served Beneville well when he was representing Nome at high-profile events in Washington or internationally.
“My first impression was something along the lines of, ‘You have to be kidding me! This little, gnomish man, with bright eyes and an elfin grin, and who looks like Marty Feldman’s little brother, is the Mayor of Nome?!’” Farrell said in an email.
“Given Mr. Beneville’s love of musicals and plays, it’s apt to say that he’s not the first person that most folks would consider to be straight out of Central Casting when envisioning the duly elected leader of Nome, an Arctic city, home of the Iditarod, and the Gold Rush. But it was perilous to underestimate him. He was a passionate and dedicated advocate for his community, his town, and the State of Alaska.”
As news of his death spread, tributes poured in.
“’Hello! Central!’ My friend Richard was as colorful as Nome, as tough as Nome, and as remarkable as Nome. I am going to miss him for his exuberance, his warmth, his humor and for his perseverance. One of the Northern Lights just winked out, but Richard will always be winking back at us,” Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, a colleague in the Arctic Mayors Forum, said in a statement.
The last time Berkowitz saw Beneville was at the start of this year’s Iditarod, but the two had been in contact more recently as both worked through their cities’ responses to the coronavirus pandemic, the Anchorage mayor said.
The Nome Arts Council board released a similar statement.
“Nome lost an amazing leader and advocate for the arts and for the community with the final bow this morning of Richard Beneville, who served for 20 years on the Nome Arts Council board while also widely sharing his own artistic talents and mentoring those of many, many Nomeites. Richard’s wisdom, leadership abilities, generosity, kind heart, and open spirit will be sorely, sorely missed. We can envy the lucky folks on the other side who get to see what kind of show he puts on next,” the board’s statement said.
Governor Mike Dunleavy has ordered Alaska flags to be flown at half-staff on May 18 in Beneville’s honor.