Quintessential people

Barbara Benson: Keeper of Time

by David Rutter | Photography by Susan McConnell

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Barbara Benson not only has kept track of barrington history for 35 years, she also helped make history, too. She has stood before history and measured it carefully, astutely, and with eyes wide open. And as much as any person hopes, she has made a difference in that history, not by passively recording events, but by helping shape it. She is a historian, but more than that, she is the keeper of time.

Her canvas has been Barrington. At this moment in a life that began in 1938, she is devotedly in love with Barrington and offers no hesitation for that. She is famous now after 35 years on the job. Many jobs really. She was the president of the Barrington Area Historical Society for a decade, and that led to leadership in another half-dozen local groups, all shaping, managing, and protecting the area’s uniqueness.

She’s written two books on Barrington’s past, multiple historical treatises, and decades of newspaper columns about local civilization’s details. But she was always an activist historian, a role that was launched in 1980 when she read a classified advertisement in the Chicago Tribune. She had moved with husband Laurence to Deerfield where she’d set up a fancy quilt and textile shop.

“When I closed the store, I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do, but this classified ad said they wanted a museum director,” she recalls. “They wanted a jack of all trades to wear many hats. So I wrote a letter to Pam McCord Stephenson who was the president of the historical society.”

Their decades-long sisterhood began in the downtown Canteen coffee shop where old-timers assembled to rehash history and hatch community initiatives. “The way the story came to me was that Harold Byron Smith, who was chairman of Illinois Tool, said, “Well, let’s hire the British dame.” So they did. Six years later, Stephenson and Benson collaborated on two events that would change Barrington’s modern history into the next century and remold its cultural landscape.

First, the historical society was transformed into an independent area-wide organization no longer dependent on grants and control by local government. And the society launched what would become Winterscape, a holiday-season charitable launching pad for cheer and community fundraising.

“The people who participated on boards, charities, and fundraisers were more aimed toward Chicago then,” she recalls. “But we turned all that into a hometown event. The first time we did the Winterscape, it made $75,000.”

The new model harnessed the area’s financial assets into a hometown mega-engine that purrs to this day. “The English dame” had loved Barrington from the first time she saw it 45 years ago because it touched a familiar chord. It stood at the heart of an American Midwest that astounded her, though it seemed so much like the open, green, and tan hills of Kent, the “garden county of England” where she had grown up in Bromley.

“Serendipitous,” she says now. “Yes, the rolling hills, the gentle land. It reminded me of Kent.”

But this land was new. The idea of pioneers in a vast wilderness captivated her. For example, Benson will help Barrington celebrate its sesquicentennial this year. But her hometown’s sesquicentennial was in 1308. That’s 186 years before Columbus found the New World.

She was born Barbara Lane. Dorothy and Alfred’s only child was studious. He was an insurance agent and occasional house painter and she, a homemaker.

“Sometimes he went missing for a few hours to go and paint somewhere,” Benson says. “Mother was really frustrated. After all, there was a war on!”

Yes, the war. She was barely 5 on those mornings when she could raise her gaze south above the farm hills and see Spitfire fighter planes. They were swarming from famed Biggin Hill Aerodrome six miles away to meet Germany’s Luftwaffe on its way to bomb London.

She remembers the Battle of Britain clearly. “Mom and I would walk to the grocer, and pass houses that had been bombed at night,” she says. “There always were rockets that landed in the fields. Yes, I was always a child of World War II. In different phases of that war we’d be ordered out of our houses at night to seek better shelter.”

“Yes, the war is very strong in my heart,” she adds. “As I get older, even more so. My father was not well enough to serve, but he was a fire warden. Mother fostered a baby for a dentist whose wife was killed. But after a couple of years, I was an only child again.”

Benson’s childhood gift was not storytelling, though. She was a gifted dancer before her teen years and earned training at the Royal Ballet School. Ever the truth-teller, she says that career was diverted because “standards for going from school into the ballet company were incredibly high and I didn’t quite meet those standards.” But at 19, she signed a professional contract to dance in the municipal ballet companies in Krefeld and Munchen Gladbach, Germany.

“But a year into the time there, I had a very bad accident on stage,” she said. “My knee was smashed.”

Luckily, friends with the ballet company saw to her convalescence. Eventually, those friends found a landing spot for her in New York City in 1959 where she went to work at the Metropolitan Museum in the costume collection. “After going back and forth to Europe, I realized I was happiest in America.”

Life was moving even faster for the kid from Bromley. She met Wall Street Journal advertising director Lawrence Benson. They fell in love, wed with a blended family in tow, and decided in 1970 to move back to Illinois. He’d been born in Waukegan.

She lost him in January. “We would have been married 45 years this year,” she says softly. Pam McCord is gone, too. July was a hard month. Many of the old-timers who gave her a job are gone, too. History is a moving clock.

Standing on the gentle hill overlooking the pond at her home in North Barrington, Barbara Benson can see all of this now, because it’s her life. She would not say it of herself, but history suggests the “British dame” did all right for herself.

Here are some words that others shared about Barbara Benson

Sue DeSilva, Daughter

My name is Sue DeSilva, and on behalf of my brothers, Pete and Dave Benson, I have been given the privilege of sharing a bit of our wonderful stepmom, Barbara Benson, with you.

For my brothers, and me, the story began in 1970. This is when we met Barb for the first time. She had become our dad’s wife – his soulmate. We were young (ages 13, 11, and 7), awkward, energetic, selfish, but still and all, in desperate need of stability and love.

With her strength and courage, Barb came into our lives and quickly became our “rock.” A very British lady, 32, made a choice to leave a career at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Big Apple, took up permanent roots in the Northwest Suburbs; the first 15 years in Lincolnshire, and the past 30 here in Barrington. This lovely person with the “funny accent” not only became a first-time wife to our dad, but also an instant mother to the three of us.

Along with a healthy supply of confidence, and passion for life, Barb’s strength and courage has allowed her to push through any challenge and always succeed. Over the years, Dave, Pete, and I have tried to show our love and gratitude for Barb, for her selflessness, love, compassion, and dedication to our family. With the recent passing of our wonderful father, we have grown even closer, and more appreciative of her strength and courage.

She is our mom, in every sense of the word, and we could not love her more.

Peer Lykke, Chairman, SQ2015 History Work Group

I have known of Barbara since I read “They Builded Better Than They Knew” some years ago. As a person who loves frequent dives into the past, I really enjoyed this compact history of Barrington.

I met Barbara for the first time four years ago on November 17, 2010 when the work to organize the celebration of Barrington’s Sesquicentennial was just getting started. I can well remember trying to get a feel for the strengths of the members at that first meeting. It was clear there was plenty of knowledge and energy in the room, but one impression stood above others: Barbara would somehow prove to be the keystone in the structure of whatever we finally “builded”.

This proved to be true. Her experience with the Barrington Area Historical Society and research in writing her own book was invaluable as we progressed through our work of writing a history of Barrington that would become the legacy of the 2015 Sesquicentennial celebration. As we shared local anecdotes and offered ideas, Barbara would tilt her head and listen carefully, adding additional detail if she had something to contribute to the narrative. And, most important to our work, she was always ready to pleasantly, but firmly, correct misinformation so the record, when finally put to paper, would be straight.

This is how I will always think of Barbara: intelligent, precise, loads of integrity – but often accompanied by that ready twinkle in her eye.

Beth Raseman, Colleague

I have known Barbara for many years, but over the past year and a half I have had the pleasure of working with her on the National Historic Register Application for Barrington’s White House.

Barbara Benson is the Chair of the National Register of Historic Places Submission Committee for The John Robertson, Jr. House, now known as Barrington’s White House. She led a committee of volunteers and professionals who made sure that we unearthed every part of Barrington’s history that would help in the application. (On Dec. 22, 2014, The John Robertson, Jr. House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.)

Over the course of my time working with her on this project, I was constantly amazed at the breadth and depth of the knowledge she had stored in her brain or in her files. If she did not have the information we needed, she knew just who would be able to provide it. But, the best part of being around Barbara isn’t how much she knows, but how she tells the story, with her wonderful British accent and her intense curiosity. She makes learning about our history and the people who lived in Barrington an adventure that truly comes alive!

A special story: Barbara and my mother-in-law Gwen are both from Britain, and they had a lot of shared history. One afternoon last year we got the two of them together over tea. We heard many wonderful stories of their ballet training in London, songs, and performers that they loved and sometimes worked with. We even got a duet from the two of them singing and doing a soft-shoe to “Back in the Old Routine”, a song that had been written by her husband, Larry!

Barbara is passionate and knowledgeable. She always knows the backstory behind the people and the history of the community. She knows it because she has developed incredible relationships with people and listened to their stories with an infectious curiosity and genuine interest in the person telling the story.

Arthur Rice, Friend

I met Barb in 1982. Barb was director of the Barrington Area HistoricalSociety (BAHS), and my father, Arthur L. Rice, Jr., was the president of the BAHS at that time. It was the goal of Barb and Art Rice to not only grow the BAHS, but to make it self-sustaining. Working with a great staff, among them Pam McCord Stephenson, BAHS established successful revenue generating programs such as Treescapes and the Fall Festival.

Barb was a strong leader and dedicated to bring the rich historical past of this community to the general public. Her book, “They Builded Better Than They Knew: Historical Perspectives of the Barrington Area”, is dedicated to the BAHS.

Dedicated and passionate describe Barb. The history of Barrington, open space, and preservation, concerns for the citizens, are challenges she takes on.

Barb was and is close to those who knew the Barrington legacy. Two of her early associates, Barrington legends Bill Klingenberg and Earl Schwemm, are two gentlemen who worked closely with Barb and appreciated her enthusiasm of Barrington’s history.

Barb followed me as president of the Greater North Barrington Area Association. The board, comprised of many North Barrington leaders, worked well together with the villages and special organizations, and open space and land was preserved.

Working with the Cuba Township Board, Barb shared her thoughts, concerns, and interests in preserving Cuba Township history, open space, and other positive approaches. She is an advocate for the food pantry and shared ideas with Priscilla Rose, Cheryl Tanaka, and Kate Formichella for other food gathering ideas. In my 16-plus years serving Cuba Township, it was a pleasure to work with Barb and learn from her.

Barb is also well-known for her passion in raising and having her champion German Shepherds enter the show ring, and giving them a wonderful home at “Shep Valley”.

Through all her volunteer efforts serving the community, Barb has demonstrated her love and appreciation for this community.

She had the highest respect for my parents, and they for her. I have the highest respect for her. Throughout her volunteer activities and serving this community, Barb was continually supportive of Larry, at his side as he suffered though physical challenges.

It’s only most appropriate that Barb is serving on and volunteering to serve on the Barrington Sesquicentennial Celebration team.

Congratulations, Barb, you are being recognized for your contributions to the Barrington area, a community about which you care so much.

Priscilla Rose, Cuba Township Clerk

I first had the opportunity to meet Barbara around 1984 as a newcomer to Barrington. I was exposed to her considerable knowledge and passion for all things Barrington through a volunteer event with the Barrington Area Historical Society where Barbara was the director. Since that time, it’s been my pleasure to work with Barbara on events involved with Cuba Township where I serve as the clerk. Barbara’s regular column, Cuba Heritage, for the Township newsletter, has been a welcome addition, as she entertains and enlightens the readers with tales of “old Barrington” and Cuba Township history. She is a great supporter of our Township activities as evidenced by her organization of a bake sale benefitting the food pantry held at the yearly Fall Festival. She serves on the Board of Managers of White Memorial Cemetery, owned by the Township, lending her guidance and support on cemetery matters. Her enthusiasm and commitment to excellence in all things she pursues serves as my inspiration. Barbara is a shining light in marquee for Barrington’s Sesquicentennial!

A Conversation with Barbara Benson

What was it like working at The Metropolitan Museum of Art?

“I worked in the Costume Institute of The Met. It was an exciting time. The Met was having its Centennial and there were special events in every department. Thomas Hoving was the director and taking the museum in new directions, like “blockbuster” exhibitions. But it was still very much the bastion of old New York money and society, and the Costume Institute was largely supported by the fashion industry. Many notables crossed our threshold.”

Where does your love of history come from?

“When I wrote my first Museum Memos column for the [Barrington] Courier, on April 10, 1980, it began: ‘When I was growing up, I believed that I walked with history. As a child in England, I lived daily with the castles, the cathedrals, and thatched roof cottages that spelled a thousand years of an evolving people. Sometimes it was just cold stone that recorded the glorious, the ordinary, or the ignoble life, but often there was more; portraits, diaries, personal mementoes, and family documents that would convey the essence of a personality across the centuries. Through the years, my scenario has changed, and in the places where I now live and work, the history of settlement in our form of civilization is barely 150 years old, for it is only those few years, which divide us from the time when the Indian (sic) lived with his own traditions in our Barrington area. Perhaps as much change is compressed into those 150 years, as rolled across Europe in a thousand years.’

And so history is just a part of me. My school leaving degrees in England (alongside my ballet studies) were in British History and Constitution. I have read newspapers from my earliest years, I have vivid memories of newspaper headlines at the end of World War II. I still have a newspaper from the Queen’s Coronation Day [June 2, 1953], which was incidentally, the first time I watched television.”

You’ve lived on two different continents in two different countries. What are your favorite things about each?

“I do like some of the more civilized traditions of Europe, as for instance, a time out during the day or early evening for refreshment and conversation, or family meals where one stayed at the table until the meal was over. (Or - please may I be excused!) I still find a telephone call using my first name by someone I don’t know very disconcerting. But that maybe age on both sides of “the pond”.

Undoubtedly the vitality of America was what first appealed to me. My first experience of America was Manhattan. Actually, I kept a diary (writing again) and always wrote about something. Yes indeed, the American dream, if one worked honestly and hard. I love the vastness and variety of the landscape, and the wild creatures that inhabit wild places. If life did not keep me here, I would live on a mountainside in Montana.”

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Publisher’s Note: Quintessential People™ is a heartfelt collaboration between our publication and portrait artist Thomas Balsamo. Our goal is to share with you exceptional images and words that ring true about some of the finest, most inspiring people in the community. For more information about Quintessential People™, contact QB or Thomas Balsamo (Portraits by Thomas) at 847-381-7710 or www.portraitsbythomas.com