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Village Council Clerk Deborah Benning, right, with her mother, the late Etta Belle Harris. Deborah died on Nov. 24 of ovarian cancer.

Benning served village in work, life

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For each of the several hundred people who attended her memorial service at Bryan Community Center on Saturday, Dec. 5, Deborah Benning meant something unique. But in all her roles as mother, step-mother, partner, friend, Village Council clerk and long-time village resident, she was consistently seen as a supportive leader and a touchstone others could depend on. She served in that way for family and friends as well as for the Village of Yellow Springs, and her death on Nov. 24 is as much a part of local history as the legacy of her family as an early part of the village’s African American community.

As clerk since 1999, Benning held one of the key leadership positions in the Village, next to the more public roles of the Village manager and the chief of police, according to Village Council President Judith Hempfling last week. She supplied Council with the information they needed to address Village issues, and she protected the village from legal liability, Council Vice President Karen Wintrow said at the memorial service. Not the first in her large family to serve the Village, Benning had a deep knowledge of local precedent and was especially aware of the historical contribution of the African American community in Yellow Springs, Hempfling said.

Benning was committed to her job, agreed fellow Village Court Clerk June Allison, who said that Benning had gotten certified at the national level and had hoped to attend a municipal clerks conference in Whales next summer. The Village relied on Benning’s institutional memory.

“It was amazing how much she had just in her head, but if it wasn’t there, she knew just where to find it,” Allison said. “[Her partner] Ronnie always used to say it was because she was old as dirt that she knew everything.”

“Now there are so many things that we can’t ‘just ask Deborah’ about anymore — they’re going to have a really hard time replacing her,” Allison said.

Former Villager Manager Rob Hillard relied heavily on Benning when he and his family first came to the village. Whether it was on the home front with interim lodging, or helping their son when they thought he stuck a popcorn kernel in his ear, or on the work front finding legislative archives, “Deborah would just look at me and say, ‘Oh honey, how can I help you?’ — that was it, you know? She’d just drop everything and help me.”

Benning’s supportive nature was well known among her family and friends as well. Growing up in the village in the 1950s, her cousin Gaylord Hamilton said that all the kids in the family knew Benning was in charge and would always tell the others, “You need to do what’s right,” and “Have you been to see my mother? Well you better!” he recalled her saying.

Later in the early ’70s when Benning was working as the Yellow Springs High School librarian and cheerleading advisor, she told the local adolescents the same thing. “She would get in your stuff if she had to — she’d be like, ‘No, we’re not havin’ that,’ and ‘What were you thinkin’? We already tried that trick!’” Tami Smith recalled. But everybody confided in Benning, Smith said, partly because they knew she really cared. Darwin Lang and Shernaz Reporter both remembered her giving advice and “trying to keep everyone straight,” Reporter said.

Perhaps that’s why local resident Ronnie Robinson wanted Benning in his life. They had known each other for 39 years and had dated on and off, when in 2000 Robinson’s 10-year-old daughter Ashanta came to live with him for the first time. Puting her fate in bigger hands, Robinson placed the names of several women into a Bible and “asked the Lord to help me raise this little girl,” he said. One year later, Benning came.

“Ashanta is the young lady she is today because of Deborah. In her heart and mine, this is her second mom,” he said last week.

Benning raised her own two daughters, Asara and Cheryl, in Yellow Springs, with help from a large extended family. Her parents and many aunts and uncles had roots that went back to 1864, when Benning’s great-grandfather Andrew Spencer Benning moved from Kentucky to Yellow Springs as a freed slave. According to Benning’s uncle Don Benning, Andrew owned and farmed a lot on Marshall Street, where he helped raise seven children. Four of them were boys who made careers out of serving on the Village crew.

Don Benning recalls hearing stories from his father Chester Benning, who worked with Alfonso (Doc) Benning to upgrade the Village power grid under their older brother, Ralph (Rufus) Benning, the foreman. Once Chester and Doc were installing a transformer on Xenia Avenue south of Whiteman Street. They had to be up on the pole to turn on the electricity, but on their way down, Doc accidentally bumped the power line and died.

Don Benning remembers he and his sister Simmy were thrilled when they got to jump in the Village truck with their dad and make the rounds to each transformer bank to turn on the street lights. Don Benning believes his family members were likely the first black electrical linemen in Ohio, if not the country, a fact his father was proud of. His brother Andy served for 35 years on the Village crew as well, and together with Deborah’s years as clerk and as a Council member for several years prior, the Bennings have given a total of over 185 years of service to the village.

That deep connection to the community is something that Asara and Cheryl miss about Yellow Springs, and it has caused both of them to seriously consider moving back home. Asara was never more aware of her family’s legacy in the village than now, she said. And learning more about it has given her a purpose.

“I feel an overwhelming need to be a part of the community like our mother was,” she said this week. “I left Antioch College because I wasn’t sure it was my calling -— but now I want to do something to serve the community like our family has.”

Cheryl and her son Noah both work in college financial aid and have talked about their hopes of moving back to serve the new Antioch College. She too longs for a tighter family and community bond, and feels the same tug that her father, the late Booker Watkins, felt when deciding to move the family back to Yellow Springs after a short time in Pennsylvania.

“He said he didn’t want to raise us anywhere but Yellow Springs, where it would be safe to walk in the grass barefoot,” Cheryl said.

Benning chose her community, and she appeared to be settled in it for the long haul. She and Allison often talked about their future here.

“We called ourselves the ‘old broads,’ and we had always planned to retire in two years and ride off into the sunset together,” Allison said. But Benning was not one to dwell on the past, preferring to seek new ideas, new goals and interests. What’s new now are the friends and family members whose lives she influenced, and she would want to focus on that, Robinson said during the memorial service.

“Just to confirm,” he added at the last, “her favorite words were, “‘Well alrighty then.’”

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