Edwin Ray Benton, teacher, lover of poetry, student of the Bible, repository of family history and, most importantly, he would say, connoisseur of turnips and buttermilk, died Tuesday, September 15, 2020, at home in his cherished Caney valley, Morgan County, Kentucky. A lifelong resident on the same hillside farm where he was born May 2, 1928, he was 92 years old.
He was the third of four children, and the only son, of the late Rev. Roy and Frances (Lewis) Benton. Being a serious genealogist, Edwin would want it known that he was also the grandson of John Campbell and Rebecca Jane (Lykins) Benton; the great grandson of Rev. William Monroe and Sericia Jane (Martin) Benton; and the great, great grandson of Thomas Hart and Temperance Isabella (Rice) Benton. His genes were also swimming with Lewis, Cannady and Williams DNA.
In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by Hilda, his beloved wife of 63 years; eldest son, Phillip Benton; youngest child, Sandra Castle; great-grandson Austin Back; and sisters Geneva Allen Barker and Alene Taulbee.
He is survived by two daughters, Joyce Joseph and Phillip of Salyersville and Lois Lumpkins and Raymond of West Liberty, and one son, Joseph Benton and Karen of Richmond; fourteen grandchildren, Marci Wells, Laura Fraley, Cindy Thornsberry, Shannon Lumpkins, Heather Lumpkins, Jason Benton, Nicole Paglialonga, Preston Benton, Alexis Benton, Stefani Taylor, Staci Holley, Jeneen Roach, Jody Castle and Ben Castle; twenty-one great grandchildren; four great, great grandchildren; one sister, Naomi Eagle; one brother-in-law, Dan Lacy; one daughter-in-law, Kim Benton; twenty-two nieces and nephews; and a community of family, friends and neighbors.
At a young age, Edwin’s sisters and he suffered through their parents’ divorce and the shortages of food and money that followed. He recalled his mother struggling to make do. For more than one evening’s meal, she filled their plates with three food items – fried potatoes, mashed potatoes and potato cakes. From that, he learned to be frugal and thankful for what he had. His parents later remarried.
In his formative years, he worked on the family farm milking cows, tending pigs and chickens, planting and harvesting corn, tobacco and vegetables, and helping his father operate a sawmill and sell and deliver block-ice and apples. From that, he learned the value of hard work.
His family lived with his grandparents, and later they with them, so Edwin grew exceptionally close to his grandfather John Benton. From Grandpa Benton he learned the value of common sense.
As a teenager, he had a delivery job with Luther Reed’s Dry Goods Store in Caney. In addition, he was paid to clean the Caney school building each day after classes were dismissed and to build a fire in the classrooms’ pot belly stoves each winter morning before others arrived. As a result, he had a bank account while in high school. “I remember him writing checks,” best friend Hager Arnett, Jr., said. “That was a big deal to me.” He graduated from Cannel City High School in 1946.
In 1948, when Edwin was 19 and Hilda Elizabeth Lacy 16, the handsome basketball player and the beautiful cheerleader married. Their family grew rapidly – Joyce was born in 1949, Lois in 1950, Phillip in 1951, Joe in 1952 and Sandy in 1954. Edwin built the family a home on the bank of Caney Creek in 1956, which was still his homeplace this past week. He placed the house where his Grandpa and Grandma Benton’s log cabin home was lost to fire some 40 years earlier.
To properly feed a growing family during those early years, it was necessary to raise large gardens, but Edwin continued well into his 80s producing enough vegetables, including his ever-favorite turnips, to share with family and neighbors. He looked forward to annual plantings of fruit and nut seedlings on the farm. Even into his 90th year, he was still planting whole-walnuts.
He knew a quality education was necessary to excel in his chosen profession of teaching. He attended years of night and summer classes at Morehead State University, ultimately obtaining a Bachelor of Science Degree, Master’s Degree, Rank I, and accumulating enough credits for a doctorate, but he was too busy to undertake the dissertation. He also participated in on-campus, summer programs sponsored by the National Science Foundation, which paid stipends – including Bradley University in Peoria, IL; Peabody University in Nashville, TN; Murray State University in Murray, KY; North Western University in Chicago, IL; and Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, KY.
Edwin began his career as a schoolteacher in 1949 at Vance Fork Elementary, and later taught at Peddler Gap Elementary, both of which were one-room schools combining primary through eighth grade. He next taught at Cannel City Elementary And Junior High from 1958 through 1967, and at Morgan County High School in West Liberty through 1971. He then served as principal of Cannel City Elementary until 1980, at which time he retired.
He loved teaching, and he made sure that each student learned something new every day. Cousin Stanley Benton once observed, “To say that Edwin did some teaching is like saying John Glenn did some flying.” Not being satisfied with merely challenging students’ minds, he also served as a role model, teaching, by word and deed, right from wrong and the significance of respect for others.
“Edwin was my teacher in a little community called Peddler’s Gap when Harry Truman was President,” recalled Jimmy Jones. “This area had not yet received roads, electricity, telephones, automobiles or running water. He was different from my first teacher – he laughed, joked and played with us. Mr. Benton inspired me to become a teacher. As a new teacher fresh out of college with no clue as how to teach, I did as Mr. Benton did when I was his student.”
Virgil Lykins remembered, “When I was in the 6th grade, Edwin would tell our Science Class that the U. S. would put a man on the moon. We thought he was crazy!” “
Edwin Benton,” nephew Dan Lacy shared, “was the best teacher I ever had. Tiny Appalachian shut down coal mining town [Cannel City], but we built a solar furnace, launched a weather balloon, built a rudimentary electronic computer, sent a message in a bottle down the little creek through the tributary system out to the Atlantic Ocean and many more other experiences. He launched more than weather balloons. He launched his students’ minds and dreams. Amazing man! I’ll always be grateful.”
At a time when calculators were replacing slide rules, humans were walking on the moon and seemingly miraculous medical cures were being developed, he taught science and math to the eager minds of young people from the hills of Eastern Kentucky. In doing so, he encouraged countless students to follow their own particular dreams. That was his calling he believed, and he was right
Because his schoolteacher’s salary did not pay enough to support a family of seven, Edwin worked away most summers in the 1950s and early ‘60s for construction companies in Fairborn and Dayton, Ohio, and Ravenswood, West Virginia.
After retiring from education, he worked for Commercial Bank in West Liberty for 13 years, retiring, for the last time, in 1993.
Some of those same qualities that made him an outstanding teacher also made him a great father. A unique blend of physical strength, emotional stability and courage, he was patient, fun-loving and a decent snow-ball fighter.
Edwin could be a pragmatist. After his sons left home, he bought a tractor to replace the team of horses they had used for farm work. A neighbor asked why he needed such a large tractor for a small farm. “We’re not talking about need,” he replied. “If we only got what we needed, no one would have ever tasted country ham.”
From an early age, he had a keen interest in his ancestors and the stories of their lives, which led to a lifetime of preserving memories and collecting family relics – pocket knives, eyeglasses, plows, etc. There were three items he cherished “more than gold,” he frequently said – Grandpa Benton’s trunk, a framed photograph of a deceased son (Edwin’s uncle) and a small table. Those were the only items saved from the fire that had destroyed his grandparents’ log home.
Edwin preserved on tape his ancestors’ songs, recollections and oral traditions, many from annual Benton reunions. Relatives and neighbors would telephone at all hours of the day or night to ask clarification on someone’s birthdate, who married whom and when, who is really whose father, or where is the boundary of some parcel. In most cases he knew the answer or could locate it quickly.
He treasured his library. A voracious reader, he spent hours browsing through his book collection, re-reading favorite poems, biblical passages and school readers. Well into his 91st year, before darkness shrouded his mind, he could still recite chosen lines from some long-favored poems.
Following retirement, Edwin and Hilda spent time traveling and enjoying their farm and grandchildren. Their road trips took them throughout the United States and Canada, but they always returned home to the same farmstead.
Edwin was a long-time member of Greenville Masonic Lodge in Caney. He served as a delegate to the Kentucky Education Association, and he was a member of the Morgan County Retired Teachers’ Association. West Liberty Kiwanis Club named him Citizen of the Year in 1997. He was a tireless supporter and one-time Sunday school teacher with Caney First Church of God. As a dedicated member of Morgan County Lion’s Club, he chaired its county-wide blood drive 4 program more than twenty years, for which he was honored by the Central Kentucky Blood Center.
Edwin’s life was about compassion for others, the nurturing of youth and a commitment to help his neighbors and the larger community. Significantly, his life of service was complemented by Hilda, his co-servant leader for almost 64 years. Hilda’s mother, Mattie Lacy, once wrote, “Hilda-and-Edwin, the names go together like butter and molasses.” A close, family friend observed, “There was no rarity in loving Edwin and Hilda. You find yourself in a large company of people who do.”
It is no coincidence, perhaps, that the final paragraph of one of Edwin’s favorite books reads thusly, “I have nothing but thanks to offer. If I should ever be born again, I’ll gladly go through all of it once more. And if that should ever happen, please, God, be sure and let me marry the same girl again.” Winkler, Max. A Penny From Heaven.
After Hilda died unexpectedly in 2011, grief left 82-year-old Edwin lonely and lost. Four years later his eldest son, Phillip, died of leukemia. Then, in 2020, his youngest child, Sandy, died from multiple cancers. Although Edwin never fully recovered from those losses, he often reminisced about the countless good times and happy, family memories.
Due to the pandemic of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), no funeral service was conducted. Late-morning on Friday, September 18, 2020, his three surviving children and their spouses will gather on a hilltop overlooking the homeplace. There, Edwin will be buried next to Hilda in the upper cemetery on the Benton farm in Caney. Under different circumstances, his granddaughters, Marci, Laura, Cindy, Heather, Nicole, Lexi, Stefani, Staci and Jeneen, would have served as pallbearers.
Edwin’s family asks that, if you are so moved, instead of flowers, please consider a donation to the Edwin Benton Scholarship, benefiting Morgan County High School Seniors. Send to Morgan County Retired Teachers Association, Attn: Jane Collett, 654 East River Road, West Liberty, KY 41472. To listen to an interview of Edwin conducted in 1993 for the UK Family Farms of Kentucky: General Oral History Project go to https://kentuckyoralhistory.org/ark:/16417/xt7qbz618c61
A Celebration of Life will be held at a later date. Herald & Stewart & Halsey Funeral Home, West Liberty, Kentucky.
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