Helen Smith, The Grande Dame Of Benson’s Museum

  • Humility, dedication, joy best defines her.

Sometimes a person is so closely associated with something that when you see or hear about it you immediately think of that person.

In the case of the Benson Museum of History, the person who would most immediately come to mind is Helen Smith. Mrs. Smith has been one of the driving forces behind the museum for many years.

“The people of Benson have been so good to me,” she said. “And I love Benson.”

Her involvement with the museum dates back to when it was still located in what is now the Benson Municipal Building. The bond between the museum and Mrs. Smith has lasted nearly 40 years.

“I got interested when it was just a small place,” she said. “I became interested in them when the old school building was developed into the municipal building. They took what we had there and put it in the basement.”

She calls it a “bummer” when the move downstairs happened and forced the people running the museum into making the most of what they had.

Mrs. Smith admits she had hoped the museum would be able to find a permanent home and was very excited to find out the building which now houses the museum was on the market.

“Things were kind of on top of one another,” she said referring to the cramped basement. “I kept wishing and hoping, so forth and so one. Then first thing I knew, at our board meeting we learned this building was for sale, which made me very happy, very happy. I just feel so blessed that we were able to get this building.”

Benson Town Clerk and historian Terry Hobgood says Mrs. Smith is irreplaceable, not only at the museum but in Benson itself.

“It’s hard to imagine the museum without Helen,” he said. “She’s a big reason why it exists, as well as one of the key contributors that helped us make the move to Main Street about a decade ago.”

Mrs. Smith has not only provided her time and service to the museum, she has also provided several artifacts from her life. She has given the museum her mother-in-law’s stove, her mother’s pots and pans and other items from her past.

“Helen Smith has been a driving force behind the museum since its beginning as a part of Benson’s Centennial in 1987,” said board of directors Chairman Hampton Whittington. “Although she has devoted untold volunteer hours to the museum, she has devoted just as much time to an unbelievable number of other community projects.”

When you enter the doors of the museum, if you look to your right you will see a photo dedicated to Mrs. Smith. It honors her for her contributions, despite a desire from her to remain low key and to go unnoticed.

“Last year we wanted to recognize her contributions to the museum in a more public way, so we designed and printed banners in the front window thanking her for her years of service,” Mr. Hobgood said. “We had to keep it a secret from her otherwise she wouldn’t have let us do it.”

Mrs. Smith’s life outside the museum is just as colorful and interesting as the many artifacts housed inside the building. She has traveled to all 50 states with her late husband, Ray, been a business owner, state employee and has enjoyed as much of life as is humanly possible.

She and her husband — a past National Commander of The American Legion — have had the opportunity to visit military and legion posts in all 50 states and around the world.

“We really traveled the world,” she said. “There was our European travels and our Pacific travels. We just went all over.”

She calls it an excellent situation, she admits it did get tiring, but it always ended up back home in Benson.

She relates the stories of her travels with a gleam in her eye that is truly hard to miss. As she tells of encounters with a variety of people, one cannot help but sit and listen in amazement.

She tells of one visit while in Europe where the furniture wasn’t the only surprise.

“We went to one military installation that just had this big, awkward furniture — huge, huge things,” she said. “Come to find out they were taken from Hitler’s mansion.”

Another of the visits she recalls vividly is a trip to the demilitarized zone on the border between North and South Korea. She said they were just a few feet from the North Korean border and were able to observe guards on the north side.

Helen Smith has been a stalwart of the Benson Museum of History since its inception. She currently serves as secretary of the board and has offered many items from her own life for display. Here she points out the stove her mother-in-law used and the pan her mother used.

“My husband had asked the commanding officer how was the tension between them in that situation,” she said. “He told my husband the worst job he had was keeping his men from throwing rocks at the other side.”

Her duties at the museum have been reduced over time. She now spends the majority of her time at the museum in the back. That’s where she scours over newspapers looking for stories on people and things happening in Benson. She also has set her sights on preserving all of the old newspaper clippings just to make sure they’re around for the next generation of people who want to utilize the museum and it’s resources.

“I think the best part has been working with people and the encouragement that we get from people, you’d be surprised,” she said. “If there’s an article I make three copies, one for here in our files and I send at least two copies to the families. I want to let them know its on file at the Benson museum.”

Her vast knowledge of those clippings has been a resource for more than just the archives.

“When I first began working here in 2012, she was one of the first people I met,” Mr. Hobgood said. “If I ever need a volunteer, information about an artifact or a photograph, she either knows the answer or tells me who I should talk to.”

When you ask Mrs. Smith what she is most proud of among her accomplishments in life she puts it rather simply and succinctly.

“This museum,” she said.   Courtesy The Daily Record