Mayor James “Richard” Beneville of Nome died today, during the early morning hours, at the Norton Sound Regional Hospital in Nome.
The mayor had been suffering from a recent bout of pneumonia when he was readmitted to the local hospital. He tested negative for COVID-19.
Nome-ites, other Alaskans, and visitors from around the world will remember the Mayor by his iconic phrase, “Hello Central!”
Beneville moved to Nome in 1988. He was first elected Mayor in 2015 and was in the midst of serving his third term. Beneville, also a long-time dancer and former Broadway performer, suffered a stroke back in February that prevented him from traveling and advocating for Nome in Washington D.C. earlier this spring. Despite his health challenges, Beneville did make it to Anchorage for the Iditarod musher’s banquet in March. It was one of his last public events.
Since the stroke a few months ago, Beneville had been battling pneumonia and general fatigue.
Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman said that Beneville was deeply frustrated that illness had begun to slow him down. Steckman remembered the late Mayor by saying:
“You appreciated his enthusiasm and love for the City of Nome and what the City meant to him, which helped him at some of the darkest times in his life. And he wanted to give back to Nome.”
Beneville was open about many of the joys and struggles in his life. He lived his life publicly as a gay man and talked openly about overcoming his addiction to alcohol and finding sobriety in Nome.
For years, Richard made his living as a tour guide with his company Nome Discovery Tours. Like many others, Manager Glenn Steckman got his first taste of Nome’s history, culture, and surrounding landscape from one of Beneville’s iconic tours.
“He would get so intent on telling you something, he would wander across the road and you were having to remind him to keep his eyes on the road as he was telling you what he knew about Nome… he was just a bundle of energy at that point.”
Generations of Nome-ites also know him as the man who taught theater in schools and brought community productions of musicals like “My Fair Lady” and “South Pacific” to the local stage.
In addition to serving as Mayor of Nome he was also the President of the Alaska Conference of Mayors. Beneville tried to put the spirit of public service in everything he did.
“I can say in all honesty that I am happy. And it comes down to I have this tremendous pride to live here. I really do. The Far North has given me so much and maybe in my tours I try to, not re-pay, how do you repay a debt like that? You just try to help things along.”-Mayor Richard Beneville, 2015
Beneville is survived by his two nephews and his cat, Ollie. Manager Glenn Steckman says memorial services will be planned in accordance with the wishes detailed in the former mayor’s will and social distancing recommendations from the CDC. Richard Beneville was 75 years old.
Upon hearing news of Beneville’s passing, several Alaska Representatives issued formal statements, including:
“I was saddened to hear of Mayor Beneville’s passing last night. I appreciate his many years of advocacy for our community, and his enthusiasm for Nome will be sorely missed. Goodbye Central!”
– Rep. Neal Foster (D-Nome)
“Mayor Beneville was an incredible character with a quick wit and a larger-than-life personality. He was one of the best public speakers I’ve heard and a dedicated public servant. He will be dearly missed.”
– Speaker Bryce Edgmon (I-Dillingham)
“Richard Beneville was a true leader who left a positive impact in Nome that will never be forgotten,” said Governor Mike Dunleavy. “His years of public service – serving three terms as Nome’s Mayor – and true love for the City of Nome exemplified his Alaskan spirit. Nome will not be the same without Richard. Rose and I extend our deepest sympathies to the Beneville family and the entire Nome community for their loss.”
– Governor Dunleavy
Dunleavy has directed that Alaska state flags fly at half-staff next Monday, May 18th, in honor of Mayor Richard Beneville.
Image at top: Nome’s Mayor Richard Beneville seen driving around town in his iconic tour-van. Photo from Mitch Borden, KNOM (2016).