Lucy Wilson Benson, former president of the League of Women Voters and previous US undersecretary of state and wife of physics professor, Bruce Benson, interviewed by Joel Gordon, former professor of physics. Sponsored by the Friends of the Amherst College Library.
[00:00] Gordon: Today is Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008. My name is Joel Gordon, Emeritus Professor of Physics and Stone Professor in Natural Sciences. This morning, as part of an Amherst Oral History project, Lucy Wilson Benson [[inaudible]] about her long and distinguished career.
[00:22] Lucy has a list of achievements and honors that is much too long to detail in full, but I want to mention that of her many offices of high authority, there are included the national presidency of the League of Women Voters, she was secretary of human services for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts under Governor Dukakis, and she was the under secretary of state for security assistance, science, and technology under President Jimmy Carter.
[00:54] She was the first woman to occupy the latter two offices, and she was also the first woman to serve on a number of boards, or as trustee of colleges, philanthropic organizations, and corporate boards.
[01:09] Lucy’s also been an active member of Amherst College. She was also the devoted wife of Bruce Benson, Amherst Class of ‘43, and a member of Amherst’s Physics faculty from 1947 until his death. She and Bruce were very generous benefactors of the College, a generosity that includes endowing the Bruce B. Benson ‘43 and Lucy Wilson Benson Professorship, a chair currently occupied by Professor Kannan Jagannathan of the Physics Department.
[01:41] Lucy, uh, let’s begin early in your career and in your life. You were a graduate of Smith College and, like many Smith Colleges, your initial trajectory after college was somewhat typical. You went to New York, I believe, and from there to New York and then back to western Massachusetts, to Amherst, where you married an Amherst graduate, uh-
[2:10] Benson: That’s right.
[2:11] Gordon: [Laughs] Tell us a little more about those early years.
[2:14] Benson: Well, I actually met Bruce when I was a senior at Smith and he was on the faculty of course, and uh, and then I went off to New York when I graduated to work for a while, but didn’t I stay in New York very long because we were married within the year, and moved to Amherst in March of 1950. And I’ve been here ever since.
[2:34] Gordon: Uh, you’ve told me, somewhat earlier a little bit about your first impressions of Bruce-
[2:42] Benson: [Laughs] Oh dear-
[2:42] Gordon: How, I think, they deviated from later ones.
[2:46] Benson: Oh well indeed, yes, our first date was sort of semi-arranged by a member of the History Department at Amherst College who was a friend of my sister and they had been graduate students together in American history at Harvard. And Mel Kranzberg called and asked me if I would contemplate going out with Bruce. I was initially a little bit timid about that because physics, I have no knowledge, still don’t have very much knowledge of physics.
[3:11] And anyway, we went out and Bruce came over to Smith College to get me one evening when we were gonna go to the movies and uh, it was pouring rain and, and he came in to Haven House where I lived, and with an old hat, and, really, quite a disreputable looking raincoat and his trousers were too short and I thought “oh my God, what is this?” But I went out with him and we had sort of a funny first date, but the second date was infinitely better and from then on it was just one thing after another.
[3:42] Gordon: Uh, and one thing after another included marrying him in 1950 I believe [crosstalk] -
[3:48] Benson: Oh well, you know, going- seeing him during that fall, that summer and fall, I went to Europe that summer and he met me when I came back, met me at the boat in New York, and, the Queen Mary I think it was, or maybe it was Queen Elizabeth, I forget now. And, uh, you know, so I saw a lot of him that fall and then we got engaged about, hm, I think Thanksgiving time, we got married the following March of 1950.
[4:14] Gordon: And then in those first early years as an Amherst spouse, what was it like?
[4:22] Benson: Well, it was, uh, I don’t really remember too well. It was, it was sort of odd because the faculty wives, faculty wives have a sort of life of their own, but I had a job at Smith College and, um so I didn’t become a part of that “Ladies of Amherst” they were called and, uh, and I went to- I worked at Smith College and I went to Smith everyday and 3 years later, 3 years later, I, I became a graduate student in history at Smith. So for the first 5 or 6 years I was very busy either working or being a graduate student.
[5:00] Gordon: And so you weren’t a member of that club of Ladies of Amherst that used to sew costumes for Kirby Theater-
[5:06] Benson: Well that’s one thing the Ladies of Amherst did, but I don’t think every member of the faculty- every faculty wife knew how to sew, I certainly didn’t. But, I think one was automatically a member of the Ladies of Amherst, I don’t seem to remember that, but I just didn’t go to the meetings because I was working and they met during the day, in the afternoons I think.
[5:26] Gordon: And in some 3 or 4 years after you came to Amherst you became active in the League of Women Voters? [Crosstalk]
[5:32] Benson: Well I think, I think it was about 1954 or ‘55, I was a [laughs] dragooned into joining the League of Women Voters, which I had no intention of doing, by other faculty wives. Joy Kennedy was the wife of Gail Kennedy in the Philosophy Department and Francis Warne whose husband Colston Warne was in the Economics Department and the editor of Consumer Reports and, you know, once I got involved in the League it was terribly interesting and one thing led to another and pretty soon I was League President and on the state board and then State President and then eventually National President.
[6:11] Gordon: Ooh, you’ve leaped ahead a little too quickly for me [Laughs] -
[6:13] Benson: [Laughs]
[6:14] Gordon: I wanted just to interpolate that, um, Gail Kennedy was prominent in the history of the college, he was [crosstalk]-
[6:24] Benson: Indeed… new curriculum-
[6:26] Gordon: Of the new curriculum.
[6:27] Benson: And then I also worked for George Taylor who was also involved in the new curriculum, George Taylor in the Economics Department, he was also professor of American Studies and I read papers for him one semester, but I was too tough on the students he had to go and regrade them all. So he told Bruce.
[6:45] Gordon: Ah, now, just to digress from your career for a moment, the new curriculum, which 40 or 50 years later we still refer to sometimes as the “new curriculum,” was the curriculum which distinguished itself in the United States as being the, probably the only one in which all entering students were required to take a science and math course- physics and math sorry- a math and physics course in their first year, as well as the famous English I, II course-
[7:17] Benson: Right-
[7:18] Gordon: Bruce must’ve participated in that-
[7:20] Benson: Oh, indeed, yes!
[7:21] Gordon: Almost in the beginning-
[7:22] Benson: Yes, he was involved in it from the beginning and he strongly approved of it, and a lot of faculty did not approve of it and eventually, it was discontinued which was too bad, I thought it was an excellent idea. Not being a scientist myself and not having ever taken Physics, which I wish I should, wish I had been forced to take, as Amherst College students were, I think it was an excellent thing- to go into this world without understanding basic Physics seems to me is a big mistake. So I was sorry when it got done in.
[7:55] Gordon: So was I-
[8:00] Benson: [Laughs]
[8:00] Gordon: I wasn’t here then, it’s my understanding that when that course began,Ted Soller, who then chairman of the department, was the lead professor of the course, the science I, II [crosstalk]-
[8:11] Benson: I’m sure he was, yes, yeah, yeah.
[8:14] Gordon: And, I also, my understanding also is that he rapidly recognized that that was not his forte.
[8:23] Benson: Ted? Soller? I’m not sure, I don’t know about that.
[8:26] Gordon: And that at Ted’s initiative, we went out and recruited the famed Arnold Arons. Do you have any recollection of the early years when Arnold first arrived at Amherst?
[8:37] Benson: Well, Arnold-
[8:38] Gordon: And Bruce’s reaction?
[8:39] Benson: Anybody who knew Arnold would recognize immediately, he was kind of explosive, uh, personality and a very tough guy, and a tough disciplinarian I think, and a very good teacher was what I heard. He was an interesting man, and, um, hard to say. He was a very interesting person and a very good teacher but he also [laughs] was cordially disliked by a great many people because he was so tough. And a lot of students didn’t like having to take Physics but in later years, I’ve talked to students who were, talked to people who were students at that time, they said they would think back on Physics I, or as it was Science I? What was it called?
[9:25] Gordon: Science I, II
[9:27] Benson: Science I, II, right, fondly. “Oh I had your husband in Science I, II,” someone says to me and they seemed to think upon him fondly, So there you are.
[9:33] Gordon: They often regret that their sons, and now daughters don’t have to suffer the way they felt they suffered-
[9:42] Benson: [Laughs]
[9:43] Gordon: In Science I, II and English I, II. Um, Bruce when he came, was finishing up his graduate work at Yale, and was brought again by Ted Soller, to Amherst, along with a very well-known physicist, William Fairbank, to help Ted build a helium liquifier at the college and Amherst for many years was one of the few institutions in the United States that had its own helium liquifier.
[10:11] Um, but the original purpose for which the liquifier was built was to try to isolate what is known as Helium-3, an isotope of helium and study its properties, and Bruce’s task was to build a mass spectrometer to carry out that isolation process. But, about the time that this happened, Helium-3 became relatively abundant because of the hydrogen bomb project and so the interest in that research shifted. And it was Arnold Arons, I think, who persuaded Bruce to turn his expertise in mass spectroscopy to studying ocean currents.
[10:52] Benson: Yes-
[10:52] Gordon: Do you remember anything about that?
[10:54] Benson: Not very much. I do remember that that was so and it led to a very interesting, you know, development and a great deal of work by Bruce over the years in building this laboratory of the mass spectrometer. And he worked at that for many years and I got a little bit, not conversant with, but a little bit acquainted with it because I used to help Bruce do various things around the machine, especially fill it with liquid uh-
[11:23] Gordon: Nitrogen.
[11:24] Benson: Liquid nitrogen, uh, which it had to be done on a regular basis and when he was busy doing things, I would go over to the physics lab late at night, in the old physics lab Fayerweather Hall. Down in the basement was where his lab was and fill that machine, and then I went, continued to do it after the science building was built. And it was sort of eerie running around that building in the [laughs] at midnight or so, but I, you know, I got used to doing that. I sort of enjoyed doing that. It was kind of fun. I was always worried about, you know, making a mistake and doing the wrong thing-
[11:57] Gordon: [Laughs] Well, I’ll bet.
[11:57] Benson: Really worried, but [laughs] wouldn’t wanna do the wrong thing, uh for a lot of reasons, but at any rate, I managed not to make any mistake.
[12:08] Gordon: I was gonna raise this point later in our discussion, but I’ll raise it now. In this matter, of filling what was called “Bruce’s traps” with liquid nitrogen twice each day- at least that’s how I remember it- um, there came a time, just after we had moved from Fayerweather to Merrill Science Center after it had been built, when there was a sit-in at the College. In February 1970, there was a sit-in by the black students of Merrill and Converse and Frost and another building, I can’t- Converse I guess-
[12:45] Benson: This was after the move from Fayerweather?
[12:47] Gordon: After the move from Fayerweather. And that sit-in lasted for less than 24 hours, but the traps had to be filled every 12 hours, and I remember going to the building and trying to persuade the students to let Bruce in so that he could fill the traps and they, in my view somewhat grudgingly, agreed. So we arranged for him to enter Merrill by a back door, where it wouldn’t be seen-
[13:12] Benson: [Laughs]
[13:12] Gordon: Easily, for the rest of the campus, and Bruce went in and actually in that case since we didn’t know how long the sit-in was going to last, he turned off the pumps, rather than refilling them with nitrogen. So that mercury vapors wouldn’t get into the building. And Bruce was quoted in the Amherst Student after that sit-in as saying that as he left the building he thanked the students and he said, “they were very gracious.”
[13:46] Benson: [Laughs] Sounds like Bruce-
[13:47] Gordon: It does, it does. Um, let’s turn back to the League. You’ve mentioned that you were- if I’ve got the dates correctly- you were president of the Town League of Amherst, and while you were doing that, you were also on the State Board for a while?
[14:07] Benson: Uh, yes, let’s see, and the dates get a little difficult. I believe that, yes, I became local League president about 1950 so I went on the State Board at the same time. And so, and then I became president of the State League in 1961 I think.
[14:30] Gordon: Mhm [affirmative], I have it written here-
[14:33] Benson: [Laughs] And that- until 1964. And then I was on the National Board by that time, I became president in 1968.
[14:43] Gordon: Now, what among the facts that I noted while trying to prepare for this a little was that when you were president, national president, you had a constituency of a hundred and seventy thousand members. And I tried to calculate back about that time I should think that I remember the House of Representatives from Nevada or Wyoming or such states had a smaller constituency than that.
[15:10] Benson: [Laughs] Well, maybe. However our functions were quite different [laughs]-
[15:13] Gordon: [Laughs] Uh, you told me the other day a nice story about Henry Steele Commager and the League.
[15:20] Benson: Oh, well, the- in, in 1974 as I was concluding my 3rd term as National League president, we had our convention in San Francisco, and I asked Henry Steel Commager if he would come out and speak to the League Convention and yes he would. And, uh, we paid his transportation, but he did not receive or even expect an honorarium. He got out there, to discover that we had just passed- changed the bylaws of the League of Women Voters to admit men. And this had been quite a, quite a controversy, but it was passed easily. And he got there and he said “oh, you’re admitting men, I wanna be the first member!” And said, “well, Felix you can’t be the first member,” “why not?!” he said. And I said “because Bruce is already the first member.” “Oh,” he said, “well that’s alright, he’s my colleague.” And that was very nice [laughs].
[16:21] Gordon: [Laughs] In that period, I think when you were state president, I noted that you were also a Radcliffe Fellow.
[16:28] Benson: That was before I was state president, that was, I believe from 1955 to ‘57.
[16:35] Gordon: Hm! I thought I recorded it slightly later [laughs], but at any rate, could you tell us a bit about what that-
[16:41] Benson: Well I got that- what the purpose was to do a study of religion and politics in Massachusetts and the influence of one upon the other. I didn’t get very far with it because I got so involved in several big efforts by the League at making some changes in Massachusetts State Government, and so, but that was what I was doing at Radcliffe.
[17:08] Gordon: Did you spend- I mean did you commute to Radcliffe at the time?
[17:11] Benson: Well I commuted to Radcliffe and to Boston to be in my work at the League at the same time.
[17:20] Gordon: Um, let’s, let’s turn back to Amherst town and Amherst College a little bit. In those early years, and I actually- I think later as well, you served on various town committees, town meeting member for-
[17:36] Benson: I was a town meeting member for 17 years, I think it was, I was town finance committee member from 1960 to ‘66, I think it was. For 6- those 6 years, which was very interesting, I really enjoyed that. It was a little bit uh, not really like, but a little bit like being on an audit committee, where you really learn everything that’s going on and why things cost what they cost, and why you have to do this, that, or the other thing. Very- I enjoyed it immensely.
[18:07] Gordon: Oh it was good preparation for later aspects of your career?
[18:10] Benson: Well that’s true, yes. It was- certainly was not, it was not unfamiliar. What I ran into later was not unfamiliar. It was not the same, but the finance committee does a different thing from what an audit committee does, so they’re not the same but the atmosphere is the same one might say, the surroundings, the work that you have to do is related.
[18:33] Gordon: What about town meeting in those days? Was it as contentious then, and as long-winded as it apparently is now?
[18:40] Benson: No, it was not contentious, and it was not long-winded, and we had a simply super town moderator who was one of the leading citizens of the town, Winthrop Dakin. And he was a tall and distinguished looking person who presided over the town meeting with a great deal of aplomb and, and quiet organization. And he would say when the discussion on an article was- had gone on what he’d considered to be long enough, “does anybody have anything NEW to say?” And you wouldn’t have gotten up and said anything at all, unless it really was new and that made town meeting moved along considerably faster than it does now.
[19:24] Gordon: [Laughs] Oh for a good moderator-
[19:26] Benson: Right. And also it’s a different time now, you know there’s, there was not uh- we’d gone through a whole period of participatory democracy and everybody needs to be heard, quote, end quote, that takes a lot of time.
[19:41] Gordon: [Laughs] Uh, you mentioned earlier Gail Kennedy, and Gail Kennedy’s, uh, I don’t remember his wife’s name-
[19:49] Benson: Joy, Joy Kennedy was her name.
[19:53] Gordon: Um, you also, you mentioned briefly Colston Warne. Uh, it’s interesting, I told my father that I was accepted to a faculty position at Amherst. He- all he knew about Amherst was that Colston Warne was here.
[20:09] Benson: That’s interesting.
[20:10] Gordon: Did you know the Warnes well?
[20:12] Benson: Yes, did know them quite well. We knew them quite well.
[20:16] Gordon: There were several eminent members of the Economics Department at that time. Willard Thorp, for example, and his wife Clarice. Did you over the years have much connection with them?
[20:27] Benson: Oh yes, knew them very well. And knew Clarice and Willard Thorp very well, we spent a good deal of time with them over the years. And they were invigorating people, interesting.
[20:42] Gordon: And as you look back over the people you knew at Amherst at that time, you obviously knew Charlie Cole, Cal Plimpton who followed, their wives. There were other people who loomed large at that time, certainly when I, when I was here, Al Lumley-
[21:01] Benson: Oh yes.
[21:02] Gordon: Could you say a bit about Al Lumley?
[21:03] Benson: Oh Al Lumley was a wonderful person. He was the track coach, and um, but he also dabbled in real estate and he was responsible for us buying the house that we bought. We were looking around for a place to- we lived in, well, we lived in Webster House on the corner of South Pleasant and, uh, Webster Street? I forget now, what the name of that street is-
[21:24] Gordon: Walnut!
[21:25] Benson: Uh. I don’t know
[21:26] Gordon: Isn’t it Walnut and Webster?
[21:28] Benson: Well, uh. Hm I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. Anyway, and it was a four room apartment and wanted to move but we were too low in the totem pole to qualify for a, what one might call a good house owned by the college. So we started to look for a place to live and we found a place in Hadley we thought we wanted to live in, thank god we didn’t, but, uh- and Bruce had Al Lumley come and look at the house and he found that it was not suitable. It was not a good place to buy. So he scouted around and came up with the house which we subsequently bought, which was then owned by Paul French who owned the bookstore downtown, and they had built a house, he and his wife, built a house up in Harkness Road in Pelham.
[22:10] And so Al Lumly persuaded them to sell the house for half price. And we had a second mortgage on that, this was another whole story. The college had just passed a new procedure called second mortgage, and this was to encourage faculty members to go out and buy their own house. We, I don’t think we knew about this when we started but we were the first to come under it. And we went down to the Amherst Savings Bank, which is now where the restaurant Chez Albert is, and Mr. Holly who was a very elderly, distinguished looking gentleman, the bank president. And Paul Weathers who was the college trustee- I mean, uh, treasurer. And, to sign this second mortgage. And we already had a first mortgage with the bank, a different bank, First National Bank of Amherst in fact, no longer in existence.
[23:05] And we were reading this agreement with-- between us and the college which we were to sign, when I came upon a paragraph which said that if something happened to Bruce, I would have to pay up the mortgage in full or be out of the house in 6 months. And I read that and I said, “is that what that means?” And Paul Weathers said, “well yes, of course,” as if it were naturally. And I said “well won’t sign.” Well you know, all hell broke loose and Bruce said he wouldn’t sign and Toby Dakin said I would not advise signing that and that was that.
[23:35] And so, overnight however, Charlie Cole who was down at Columbia University on some, you know on business, he made it clear that this had to go through and so the paragraph got taken out and the next morning we met and signed the thing, and uh, there we were. It was, it was a bit of a flurry in the faculty I might say. [Laughs]
[24:02] Gordon: It’s a very lovely house, now. Was it as lovely then?
[24:06] Benson: Oh, just about, basically it’s still the same. We’ve changed around some of the inside, but mostly it’s the same. Trees, all the trees around the place, Bruce planted, that is to say he had planted, and they were very small then, and now they’re of course they’re towering trees.
[24:21] Gordon: And he chose them?
[24:22] Benson: Oh he chose them indeed, yes, Bruce was very good at uh, not horticulture but at trees anyway, trees and bushes, yeah.
[24:32] Gordon: You mentioned Toby Dakin, uh, the Dakins were an eminent family-
[24:37] Benson: Indeed.
[24:38] Gordon: In the town, in the history of the town. And uh, Janet. Janet Dakin was she an animal lover at that time as well as later on?
[24:49] Benson: Oh I think so because she was a horse person. And had horses then and rode all the time. And uh, I don’t think they had, I don’t remember that they had a dog, they may have had cats, I’ve forgotten now, but she was certainly an animal person.
[25:05] Gordon: And also a League person.
[25:06] Benson: Oh yes and a League person, very much so. She was not only a member of the League and locally president, but when I became state president, she became our parliamentarian at state conventions. And then when I became national president, she became the parliamentarian at our national conventions. She was terrific, just wonderful. And everybody loved her because when they wanted to do something, she enabled them to do it, or she said “no you can’t do that, the way to do it is this way.” And, uh, and people who were trying to do things at the convention, trying to get things changed or passed, or what have you, um, counted on her to give them the best advice as to how to maneuver and she was very good, yeah. And a great sense of humor, everybody loved her.
[25:55] Gordon: Um, what other interesting and eminent- or eminent people did you meet in those years at Amherst?
[26:02] Benson: At Amherst?
[26:03] Gordon: Well or elsewhere, but-
[26:05] Benson: Well you know, that’s-
[26:05] Gordon: Before we move on to your larger career.
[26:07] Benson: Well, uh I can’t remember just exactly. You know, one meets a lot of people in politics, when you’re working on things having to do with government, and um, so you know, you get used to meeting and working with governors and, and legislators and um, I was on a number of committees, commission of the- in the state while I was state league president.
[26:39] One in particular was a commission made up of several legislators, the senate president, his name was Donahue, was the chairman, and there were three public members, George Ellis who was the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and Polly Bunting who was president at Radcliffe and, yours truly. And we were charged with exploring the problems of governance of the University of Massachusetts. And we- which was very closely tied to the entire state personnel and budget system. In other words it was just another department operating out of the state house which was impossible, you know, having personnel, bureau of the state deciding which, who should be hired to be a professor of Physics, they didn’t know anything about Physics or about academics or anything else.
[27:30] Anyway, we recommended it and subsequently got adopted by the legislature that the trustees of the University of Massachusetts be freed of the state control agencies and have their own personnel bureau and their own everything. And what they had to do, of course, was still get their budget passed by the legislature, they weren’t freed of that. But it was an entire- gave birth to the growth of the University of Massachusetts which has been spectacular. And uh, that was under the presidency of John Lederle who came from the University of Michigan, early- late in the 50s I guess, to the University. Very good man. That was very interesting, and a great deal of work, that was a great battle in the legislature, and it’s always fun to win [laughs].
[28:18] Gordon: [Laughs] Oh and uh, I really had never appreciated your role in the changes in the University.
[28:24] Benson: Well it was uh, I’ve always felt a little bit of, I continue to feel a little bit of propriety, proprietary interest in the, in the University because of that, yeah. Other than that I have no connection.
[28:39] Gordon: Well you’ve had a connection of importance with both the college- Amherst College and the University. What about Hampshire? Were you, was Bruce? [Crosstalk]
[28:49] Benson: No, we weren’t, we weren’t really involved with the founding of Hampshire. I did speak at a Hampshire Commencement once, but uh, other than that we weren’t involved. And, though of course, we knew everybody who was. I knew the, think his name was Peterson, who came from Tufts, and I knew Chuck Longsworth at Amherst and Ken Rosenthal who were involved in the, in the very beginning of Hampshire.
[29:18] Gordon: Did Bruce ever express views about the Hampshire curriculum?
[29:21] Benson: I, I don’t think, I don’t remember. I don’t really remember that.
[29:26] Gordon: Um. Before we move on to other aspects of your career, let me ask you about uh, matters pertaining to women in academic institutions. So you knew Jill Conway-
[29:45] Benson: Oh yes, very well. I was on the Trustees, I was a member of the Trustees of Smith College when she was President.
[29:51] Gordon: And did you, you had some disagreements with her, is that right?
[29:56] Benson: No, not really, we didn’t have any disagreements about anything except a disagreement in philosophy, about whether or not Smith should stay a same gender college. And I thought it ought not to, and- but it was not a popular thing. Well it was very popular among some members of the faculty wanted the college to be coed, but others did not. And you know, it was not a subject which we discussed at the Board of Trustees, and she would not have allowed it to be discussed. But it was, uh, much on my mind, and before I left, and as an outgoing trustee, I made a speech about it at the trustees meeting, and, you know that was that. It’s still a single sex educational insitution.
[30:49] Gordon: But somewhat different now. It’s had great success, I gather, with this new engineering program.
[30:55] Benson: I guess, yes. And uh, it’s done a lot of things and I think, I don’t feel quite as strongly about the issue as I used to, I still think it’s better for both men and women to be in college together than not. But you know, can’t, can’t battle windmills [laughs].
[31:14] Gordon: Uh, another strong woman who has been in the Valley in our time here was Catherine Bateson. Did you know her at all?
[31:25] Benson: No I didn’t know her very well, I knew her a little bit. I knew her mother. Um, years and years ago, she came to see, or she asked me to come to see her at the American Museum of Natural History about, uh she wanted to talk about voting and how Native peoples like the Samoans might be getting into voting, I don’t really remember that at all. It was a little bit ethereal, the conversation [laughs].
[31:50] Gordon: [Laughs] Uh-
[31:52] Benson: What I do remember however, was her office. Uh, at the American Museum of Natural History, it was way up, it’s a crenellated building and has brown towers and it looks like a great fortress in New York City. I remember climbing up to her office and the last, the last step to get to her office was a ladder. I don’t think I could do that today. But [laughs] that was a very long time ago.
[32:19] Gordon: You have long favored co-education. What about the women’s movement?
[32:27] Benson: Well, the women’s movement was, you know, it was good and it had, it was a fine thing, um. I don’t know really how to answer that question-
[32:38] Gordon: [Laughs] Not asked very well. But I know you have strong feelings about certain kinds of programs, in academia. Women’s studies, [crosstalk] women’s and gender studies-
[32:49] Benson: Well, I never have quite understood women’s and gender studies, and I still don’t, but then I must stay, I have not made an effort to try to understand it. I don’t know why you have a women’s studies and you don’t have a men’s studies, myself. But you know, I’m sure that uh, I don’t know that I want anybody around here to hear that [laughs] I’d probably get assassinated or something.
[33:10] Gordon: [Laughs] We’ll leave it there then.
[33:12] Benson: Well, let me just say about the women’s movement. The women’s movement was a very good thing. It freed up and opened doors that had not been opened before, and one can just look back 20 years and now, and see the difference in what women are doing and what they think of themselves and what they expect of themselves. All together, a very good and positive movement. There were some crazy things that went on of course, but that’s bound to happen in any movement before it settles down. I think the women's movement is a very good thing.
[33:42] Gordon: And I heard you last week very strongly praised Gloria Steinem’s op-ed piece.
[33:48] Benson: Well I, yes she wrote, recently wrote an op-ed piece about the presidential campaign and Obama, uh Senator Obama, and Senator Clinton, and it was a very reasonable thing pointing out that both women and men have made the greatest strides when they, I mean women and black people, white women and black people, black women, have made the greatest strides when they worked, when they move ahead together, and not when they fight each other.
[34:18] And way back in the very beginning of the women’s movement, suffrage movement, women gave up the fighting for suffrage, this is a period of history I’m not very familiar with but at any rate, the women gave up the big fight for suffrage in order to, to get the Constitution amended to allow black men to vote. So that’s a long history of, beginning history of women, but that’s a complicated era.
[34:47] Gordon: When I think about it, I realize I, I’ve never thought this through before, but were there many black women at Smith, when you were a student?
[34:57] Benson: Oh, no. I believe there were 2 in our class. Um, one of them went on to work for Time Magazine and is now retired. And I’m trying to remember about the other one, I’ve now forgotten what she did. Oh no, she teaches! Teaches in Philadelphia. She is also retired.
[35:19] Gordon: Mmhm. And what about in the League?
[35:21] Benson: There were some, there were some league members, black members, but not an awful lot, but they were, they were you know, the number, there were 2 on the National Board when I was national president. I don’t believe we had a black woman on the State Board. We, you know we tried, but it was, as it continues to be a difficult thing to get to, uh, these people together. But it’s more, it’s easier now than it was, because more and more women have gone into the same fields, like law for instance, and so they’re together in law school,and they’re together in law practice for instance, and they’re likely to end up being together doing other things.
[36:07] Gordon: You know Marian Wright Edelman fairly well, [crosstalk] and her husband-
[36:10] Benson: Oh, yes, I do know her, quite well.
[36:12] Gordon: Did that come out of the League years or out of the Washington years?
[36:16] Benson: Well I guess it came out of the League years, first, and then followed Peter Edelman, well they were still very much around, and still are very much around. During the time I was league president, and we were working on, on issues having to do with children and welfare for instance. Um, and-
[36:36] Gordon: Let’s turn again, to your career, particularly after you left, left the League, you were Secretary of Human Services in Massachusetts from 1975 to ‘76. Uh, what were the challenges there?
[36:54] Benson: Well, the, I don’t know exactly what the Department is like now, but at that time, it included all of the, almost the whole of the state’s expenditures except education. Mental health, public health, welfare, um, juvenile uh, juvenile matters, prisons, um, all of those departments were under the Office of Human Services, so there was a lot to, a lot to do, a lot to learn. Uh, the, the deficit of the state at the time was, was fairly large. I think it may, I can’t remember what it was but the Governor was very impressed by the size of the deficit, and he wanted the budgets cut.
[37:39] Uh and he had very strong feelings about how things should be run, and I will have to say, in all fairness, that he didn’t know much about what he was talking as a matter of fact. You know, you could only cut staff at a mental hospital or public health hospital just so much, you end up not having anybody on duty at night, and that can be very dangerous. And that was ultimately what led me to resign, and I just thought it was not responsible to do that. And, you can cut a budget- you can cut 10%, you can even cut another 10%, but you can’t do it a third time, just won’t go. Not across the board. Some things you can cut more, but you can’t cut, can’t staff out of hospitals. Not nursing staff. So, we came, we came to an agreement, I resigned, and that was that.
[38:28] Gordon: And did you, have you had much contact with him in later years?
[38:32] Benson: Oh, every once, every once in a while I see him, and uh, you know it’s all very, very friendly and nice, and that was a long time ago. [Laughs]
[38:42] Gordon: Um, then, if I’ve got it right, from ‘76 to ‘77, you were on a special commission. Had to do with the governance and the House if I got that right?
[38:52] Benson: Yeah, yes it was a committee set up by the, not just, it was enacted into law by the House of Representatives, to study the operation- the administration of the House of Representatives. There had been a lot of, of, um, ferment over the past few years then, um, in the early 70s, particularly caused by a member of Congress from Missouri named Richard Bolling, who wrote a book, I’ve forgotten what the name of it was, I think it was House out of Order, and he was trying very hard to get the House to reform itself and to adopt practices which were more, more- well let’s say, less um, grounded in what they used to do and more grounded in what they needed to do in order to meet the challenges of the modern world in the House of Representatives.
[39:43] And I was appointed to that committee. I was really looking forward to it, been to a couple of meetings before the election of that year, ‘76, when President Carter was elected, and I was happily at home just around Christmas time, getting ready for the family to arrive and doing some cooking when the phone rang one morning, about 8:15. “Lucy this is Cyrus Vance.” And I was not expecting a call from Cyrus Vance, and uh, he wanted me, he said, to come down to Washington and be, assist, Under Secretary of State. And I, for security assistance, and I was like “what is that,” and I didn’t even know what that was. Military exports is what it was, and non, nuclear non-proliferation.
[40:24] Here I am back to Physics again [laughs]. And so, I couldn’t come down, I said I couldn’t come down, I was cooking. And he said “well come down right after Christmas.” So I went down to see him, and ended up of course taking that position and um- for 3 years, and it was very, very interesting, just full of interesting things.
[40:45] Gordon: Now you had known Cyrus Vance, obviously, earlier. Where did, were you active in the Council on Foreign Relations before?
[40:52] Benson: No, not then I wasn’t. I was a member of the trilateral commission which had gotten started in the early 70s by David Rockafeller and another, a number of other eminent people, some of whom I knew, uh to get the northern industrial democracies together to work together; that is Europe, US and Canada, and Japan, on common economic and common problems of all kinds.
[41:17] Fascinating really, it was very interesting and, so that’s where I met Cyrus Vance, and I had met Jimmy Carter when I, when we had a National League Convention in Atlanta in 1970. No ‘72. And so I knew him also, he was a very fine host to the League when we were there, some fifteen hundred delegates from all over the country and he made life very, very, uh, easy for us. He was, you know, a welcoming governor and involved in what we were doing and that was a great thing. Uh, anyway, so that’s how I knew them.
[41:53] Gordon: It was when you accepted your appointment, as Under Secretary, and he was going to kiss you on the cheek or something-
[42:03] Benson: Oh did I, that may well be when I stuck out my hand instead [laughs]. I’ve given that up now. [laughs]
[42:11] Gordon: Kissing on the cheek has now come back. [Crosstalk]
[42:12] Benson: Now men are kissing men on the cheek, you know it’s uh, kinda silly [laughs]. Shaking a hand is perfectly adequate.
[42:23] Gordon: [Laughs] Um, you met some interesting people during your tenure as Under Secretary of State. Uh the Shah?
[42:33] Benson: The Shah, yes, and, and uh, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and the President of Slovenia, and- not Yugoslavia then, though it was just breaking up at that point. And a number of other people, the King of Morocco, you know you do, you meet all these people and it all happens so fast, you just sort of, I’d even forgotten about it until this, this uh session we’re having- came up and began to think about what I had done and you ask questions, and that reminds, you know that reminds me of things and otherwise I wouldn’t have, wouldn’t have remembered, but it’s true.
[43:10] Gordon: Especially, in the Middle East, I would have thought that being a woman, uh, might have been particularly difficult at times. Was that the case?
[43:20] Benson: Well it didn’t turn out to be, I would have thought it might be too, and I was a little astonished that I got sent off to, to uh, Saudi Arabia, and much less to Iran and that was a different situation, or to other places, but I don’t know, either the way was paved very carefully ahead of time or it was just simply assumed, and since it was assumed, it was assumed, I don’t know, you know.
[43:45] I, I uh, do think that the reason that the appointment with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, which was very interesting and fun, and- but did not take place until midnight in the palace. I think it must have been so that nobody would see me going in or coming out. You know, few people who knew that there was a woman in there with the Crown Prince, the better I suppose. I wasn’t alone of course, the, our ambassador was with me, and um, and various of the Crown Princes retenue were there. And we talked for well over an hour, it was, it was really sort of fun, the, our ambassador who was a wonderful man from, former Governor of South Carolina, named uh, West, John West, fondly known at the State Department as the Swamp Fox because he was so, so one of those enormously able political people who can get things done, just wonderful to watch.
[44:40] Um, he had uh, told me there’d be no smoking in- with the Crown Prince, and I said “well alright, I won’t smoke!” Crown Prince comes in and sits down, you know, great robes all over the place, and pretty soon out comes a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, and he smokes that, then he smokes another one, the third time he said, “would you like a cigarette?” And I could hardly repress a smile, I did, I mean I did, but I thanked him very much, took a cigarette, and for the rest of the time we were there, we both smoked all the time.
[45:09] And uh, now that I’ve given up smoking years and years ago [laughs], I look back on that with some wonderment, but in any case, we had a very good uh, talk. I had been sent over there to tell, to tell him something, and I did, and he took that aboard, and then he gave me a lecture in world events. And the realities of the world seen from his point of view, I don’t now remember what that was but it was, it was, you know, very interesting.
[45:38] Gordon: Did the realities, do you recall, did the realities as he saw them correlate with the realities that you saw?
[45:45] Benson: Not too far apart, but it uh, it’s just you know, he’s coming from a different background, a different point of view, and uh, he, he saw things in the Middle East, I think uh, I’m not quite sure how to put that, somewhat differently from the way we saw it. And uh, in other words, his world was there and our world is here. So, I don’t know that I can be anymore specific than that.
[46:13] Gordon: [Laughs] When you went to visit him did you go as a woman of the West, or were you attired-
[46:17] Benson: I went as a woman of the West, my regular business attire. And there was some conversation about that, I guess it was the first time any woman had been over in these parts for the State Department. That didn’t occur to me at the time, but the subject about what I should wear came up early in the day that we were there, and I said “I’m not gonna wear one of those things, I don’t have one, won’t wear one.” And the men were discussing this, including the ambassador, and I got up and the ambassador’s wife was in the kitchen and I said “what do you think about this?” And she said “of course not! You wear what you normally wear,” and I went back and I said, “conversation closed, I am NOT going to change my clothes, I am going to wear what I normally would wear, period.”
[47:02] It was alright. It was the end you know, it was the end, it was the, it was a, a uh, not what I would call an earthshaking conversation. And once I just put my foot down that was the end, there was no point in, no point in pursuing it.
[47:22] Gordon: And then, I think you, you served as an interlocutor or a peacemaker between the president of Rwanda and Dian Fossey, is that right?
[47:32] Benson: Tried, yes, that was toward the end of my tenure in the State Department. The government of Rwanda was having a very hard time coping with the problems created by Dian Fossey with her research station on the mountain, great mountain gorillas, gorgeous creatures. And, um, she wanted everybody to stay away from, you know, she wanted a larger and larger area for the gorillas to inhabit, which I could perfectly well understand.
[48:00] But he was having trouble with the farmers in the area who wanted land to farm on. And Dian was not a, uh, a uh- a peacemaker [laughs]. She, she wanted it her way. And, so I was the, uh, the government of Rwanda appealed to the State Department to help with this problem and I was [laughs] sent over by Cyrus Vance to see what I could do. And uh, it was a most interesting experience I must say.
[48:31] Her camp was, I don’t remember how far up that mountain but it was a damn long way. At least 9000 feet and we didn’t start at ground zero, but we started part way up and it took about- my recollection is it took about 4, 5 hours to get up there, and I thought to myself I’m not gonna- I was terrified I wouldn’t make it and I’d disgrace the government of the US and disgrace myself, but I made it. And 9/10ths of the way up the native trackers who were carrying all the stuff up there, up the mountain to her place and leading the way, got word that there was a group of gorillas off the trail a little bit, so we crawled, literally crawled through the bushes, it was by this time pouring rain, and there there was an opening.
[49:14] A group of gorillas, you know I never saw anything like that in my life, it was the most exciting thing. We sat down on the ground, in the rain, and my, my camera, I had given my other bag to the ambassador’s wife to carry for me and it had the extra film in it, so I only had 7 pictures in that roll of film. And um, sitting there, there were, there were at least 2 mothers and 2 little babies- I remember them specifically because one of them came over and sat on my leg and I thought I’d die.
[49:46] And I really wanted to reach out and pat the little thing but of course I didn’t move, I barely breathed. Because I was so afraid of, you know, doing something that would frighten them, but they were a group of gorillas who were used to human beings because they were one of Dian Fossey’s study groups. And uh, then there were a couple of very large, what I would call silverbacks, the big males. And a bunch of youngsters whom I called teenagers, um, running around causing trouble and one of the silverbacks made a sound. Everybody was quiet. You know, it was some sound they all knew, and that was “cut it out and shut up,” [laughs].
[50:24] Gordon: [Laughs]
[50:24] Benson: It was miraculous. And anyway so then, then after spending about a half hour watching the gorillas, we went on up to the camp and um, which was quite an extraordinary place, really, a mixture of very modern and very un-modern. No modern plumbing for instance. And she said “I’m giving you my bed to sleep in tonight but you’ll have to sleep with my dog.” He was a very nice dog. And you know, a labrador retriever of some sort, and I, it was just fine, it was alright with me [laughs].
[50:56] And let’s see, she and I had very standard discussions and uh, you know, I can’t say that it got anywhere. She did, however, subsequently work with the government more closely, and then you know, not too long after that she was murdered, and a murder that’s never really been solved and- but that research camp is still going on.
[51:20] Gordon: Oh.
[51:20] Benson: But that was quite an experience. [Laughs]
[51:21] Gordon: Uh, before we leave your years in the, with the State Department, I wanted to ask you about a couple of people. Some of whom you may have met after those years, I’m not quite certain, but uh, could you say a little bit more about Cy Vance-
[51:40] Benson: Oh he, he-
[51:40] Gordon: both as a person and as a diplomat.
[51:42] Benson: Well, in both terms, a person and a diplomat, he was a very, very fine person. Um, and um, there was a lot of tension in the Department, or between the Department, and it’s not unusual, between the State Department and the National Security Advisor. And Cy Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski, did not see eye to eye on a lot of things. So there was an underground- undertow of that going on all the time, but actually did not involve me very much, except as a side, you know, on the sidelines knowing about disagreements and difficulties. But he was a, he was a very fine guy, he was also a very fine diplomat. And uh, uh in the end you know, he resigned over that, that uh, not too long after I left the State Department, um over that business of the attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran, which was so badly planned. And uh- but he was a very nice man, as well as a, a, uh, very fine diplomat.
[52:50] Gordon: Now I’ve forgotten, I mean he was obviously not involved in the technical aspects of that operation. Was he opposed to the attempt?
[52:58] Benson: He was opposed to, I believe- I’m not sure whether he was opposed to the attempt all together or just the way which it was, um, run. I think he was opposed to the attempt, period. Uh, but uh, the main thing was that it just wasn’t gonna work and I heard about it before it happened, just by chance, and I said to the person who told me- I didn’t know that this was gonna be what he was telling me, was what it’s gonna be going on- I said, you know, “do you know you haven’t got enough helicopters?” And they may not have had other things but they certainly didn’t have enough helicopters. And of course it was a terrible, god awful failure. And um- anyway, but Vance was a wonderful person, he was very, very good.
[53:41] Gordon: My, my recollection of that time, was, he was in a sense the dove and Brzezinski was the hawk.
[53:47] Benson: Yes I think that’s, that would be accurate.
[53:50] Gordon: These days, Brzezinski, in the current climate is something of a dove-
[53:56] Benson: That’s right.
[53:56] Gordon: Did you know him at all?
[53:59] Benson: Yes, I-
[53:59] Gordon: Or well, at that time [crosstalk] and the [?] years?
[54:01] Benson: I knew, I knew him and I still know him but I wouldn’t say I really know him well.
[54:05] Gordon: But has he changed, or is it the times have changed?
[54:09] Benson: I think that, you never know really, you know? Whether people change or not. I think that the, uh, the situation is different, we’re not talking about going in and rescuing hostages. We’re talking about invading. Well, that’s what we call it, the President calls it something else. “Bringing freedom to Iraq,” what, you know. That’s uh, we were not engaged in bringing freedom to other countries in those days the way this administration has been engaged in that, or what they say that’s what they’re doing. And um, I think that the whole atmosphere of the, this administration would be counter to anything that Brzezinski thought was, was uh, a good way to go.
[54:56] Gordon: Couple of other names, um, Jim Woolsey and um, Paul Wolfowitz. Were they around Washington at the time that you were, were they-
[55:07] Benson: Yes, I knew them, uh Woolsey at the time, no after I was in the State Department, Woolsey was uh- though he was a Defense Department person, he was, he was made ambassador to uh, Indonesia, and I met him at that time, when he was ambassador to Indonesia. I think that’s the first I knew of him. Woolsey I knew, um, he was in the Defense Department, I believe, or he may not even have been in government but I did know him at that time. He may have been one of those people that works outside of the government but I believe that he was in the Defense Department. And I knew him then and subsequently, not well, but I knew him.
[55:48] Gordon: Were the policies they later advocated, could they have been anticipated on the basis of the way, the policies they favored at the time?
[55:59] Benson: So long ago, I’m not sure I know. Uh.
[56:03] Gordon: Or Cheney? Dick Cheney and um-
[56:07] Benson: [Crosstalk] Oh Cheney I’m not surprised, well-
[56:09] Gordon: [crosstalk] and Rumsfeld must have been around then too-
[56:10] Benson: Oh, Cheney and who?
[56:11] Gordon: And Rumsfeld-
[56:12] Benson: And Rumsfeld? Yeah, right. Uh, I knew Rumsfeld also, and I didn’t know Cheney very well but I was not ever surprised at Cheney. He’s been quite a consistent person ever since he was in, in the Congress, uh, where he voted against Head Start because we couldn’t afford it. You know, that is, that takes a certain amount of mindset, uh, which never changed I’m sure. Um, Woolsey, I’m not sure about, and I’m not surprised about Wolfowitz, he was uh, his, his, um, later years are consistent with his earlier years I think. Yeah.
[56:51] Gordon: Changing the terms of the discussion a little bit. In those Washington years, and other years when you were away from Amherst, a good part of the time, how did you and Bruce carry on?
[57:05] Benson: Oh well, wasn’t hard, we talked on the phone every night, at great length, and he would tell me what was going on at Amherst and the College and the department and the building of the science building, or whatever it was, and, and students, and interesting things, and I would tell him what I had been doing, and sometimes I had problems I talked them over with him. You know it was, it was uh, it was an [laughs] expensive telephone conversation.
[57:30] Uh, but I was gone, normally, 3 days a week, when I was at the State Department I was gone longer. I was gone from Monday morning till Friday evening in the State Department and when I had to travel I was gone more than that, uh, over a weekend lets just say. But, then I would, I would come, normally, home after all those, most of those years, 3 days, and so I was here 4 days, and which was plenty of time to do all the errands that needed to be done, and take care of the dogs, and we did have people in the house, uh, helping Bruce, and when I went in the State Department, before then he was on his own.
[58:12] Gordon: Many of those conversations Bruce was in the lab taking data was he, at that time? Or-
[58:18] Benson: He was mostly home I think when I, when we talked on the telephone. I would call him after 11 o’clock.
[58:24] Gordon: Ah.
[58:25] Benson: Yeah, yeah. I forget why. I think the telephone rates were cheaper after 11 weren’t they? I think-
[58:31] Gordon: Probably. I don’t remember.
[58:31] Benson: I think so. Yeah.
[58:32] Gordon: Um. Actually, to back track even a little more, farther into the past, further into the past, there were those years, the late 60s, and the early 70s, uh, the College had closed down practically for a couple of days at a time. There was the sit-in at Westover. Um, there was a-
[59:04] Benson: And the president of the college was in the front row of the sit-in, as it were.
[59:08] Gordon: Right, right. Uh, we had long debates in the faculty about whether or not the College, the faculty at any rate, should adopt public positions, of the, the Vietnamese War, where did Bruce come down? On those issues?
[59:24] Benson: Do you remember talking with him about it? My, my recollection is that he was on the conservative side, that he was not convinced that the College should take this action. Or get involved in demonstrations and things like that.
[59:38] Gordon: Not that he expressed approval for the-
[59:40] Benson: No, no!
[59:41] Gordon: For the war itself?
[59:41] Benson: No-
[59:42] Gordon: But for the-
[59:43] Bendon: But for the-
[59:43] Gordon: Action of the-
[59:44] Benson: For the action of an institution, an academic institution. I think he was, he was uh, I’m not sure he was flat out against it, but he wasn’t really in favor of it. He didn’t think it was appropriate. Was not the right role for the college to be playing. It was alright for the students to demonstrate, but not for the leaders of the College or the faculty.
[1:00:04] Gordon: Mhmm, mhmm. Yup, those, those were my impressions as well. Uh, we don’t have to proceed in the logical fashion, so let me digress and mention a couple of things about Bruce. Uh, Bruce was born in 1922 and his name is Bruce Buzzell Benson-
[1:00:27] Benson: That’s right-
[1:00:29] Gordon: Uh, he-
[1:00:29] Benson: He was born on-
[1:00:30] Gordon: B-cubed, that’s what he’s called-
[1:00:31] Benson: B-cubed, that’s right, I still, when I write his name, I still write B-cubed. [Laughs] He was born on 2/22/22. His father, I am told, was breathless, hoping that he would make it on 22-
[1:00:43] Gordon: Oh I wondered about that-
[1:00:44] Benson: And he, he [crosstalk]-
[1:00:45] Gordon: And was the decision on the name made after the birth date?
[1:00:48] Benson: That I don’t know. Buzzle was uh, his mother’s maiden name. And um, and I don’t know where the rest of it- his father’s name, of course, was Benson, I don’t know where the Bruce came from, oh! Yes, one of his father’s brothers was named Bruce, and I think he was named after Uncle Bruce who lived in California. Yeah.
[1:01:13] Gordon: Apparently, Dan and Bruce were having a conversation about numerology one day, and Bruce mentioned that he was 2, 2, 2, 2, et cetera, and I think he thought Dan should be impressed but Dan tells me he was not impressed at all, and in fact his mother was 10-10-10. And was, grew up-
[1:01:35] Benson: 1910? I suppose so, yeah.
[1:01:37] Gordon: And grew up on a farm. Which Dan regards as highly significant because 10-10-10 is a kind of fertilizer.
[1:01:44] Benson: Oh. Ah, that’s right [laughs] well.
[1:01:49] Gordon: Actually in talking about Bruce, Bruce’s research, uh, when Bruce went into mass spectrometry and oceanography, he did work which was widely quoted, widely valued still, um, but one of the things I didn’t realize is that some of the early work was analyzing vari- the solubility of various gases in seawater. And the origin, or the reasons for doing this was that the solubilities of gases in liquids and fluids depends on the temperature. And by measuring the isotopic content of various gases dissolved in seawater, one can learn about what is known as paleo temperatures, to use Dan’s term, of the water mass.
[1:02:44] And what they were really trying to do was to determine temperature changes in the environment. This was in the 50s and 60s, early 70s, much of this work, but it strikes me as interesting. It was a study ahead of its time because, of course, these are now contemporary concerns of much greater immediate importance. It’s interesting at that time there was concern, or at least there was hypothesis, that the environment was cooling rather than warming which is one of the reasons that the warming these days is so striking.
[1:03:25] Uh, Bruce went on actually in his research, and toward the end of his life, he was studying the structure of water, which is in a way kind of a funny concept. It’s a liquid and as one would think doesn’t have a structure, but he was studying the structure by looking at the solubilities of various gases in water. And also I learned only in the last few years that he did some similar work on geological specimens, which was pointed out to me by Peter Crowley.
[1:04:00] Benson: Peter Crowley, yes
[1:04:00] Gordon: So, Bruce’s work has, was of importance at the time and remains.
[1:04:05] Benson: Interesting, isn’t it.
[1:04:06] Gordon: Still to be important.
[1:04:07] Benson: Really very nice.
[1:04:10] Gordon: I wanted to get that in [laughs]. Um, well, let’s go back to your career. Life after, after the State Department.
[1:04:21] Benson: Well, let’s see.
[1:04:22] Gordon: We’re up to 1980, or so
[1:04:24] Benson: Up to 19-, yes. Ah well you know, I, that was kind of at the point when, when uh, corporations and organizations which had not normally had women on their boards began to think this might, might not be a bad idea. And I got first asked to go on the board of Northeast Utilities, which is the uh, utility- main utility of this area, which was very interesting. And first-rate, Chairman of the Board named Lee Sillin.
[1:04:58] And then I got asked to be on various other boards, and including federated department stores and Continental Can Company and, you know. So for the next some years, I was both- was on a number of boards, and- which takes quite a lot of time. It’s not- people talk all the time about how corporate boards just sit around and do nothing, but we worked hard. And um, and I was on a number of non-profit boards as well. And mostly having to do in the foreign policy field. And um, so I was really very busy all that time, I’m still busy, I don’t know quite why I’m so busy, but I am [laughs].
[1:05:36] Gordon: Were there differences in what you did, or atmospheres on elite boards of colleges, or boards of philanthropic groups versus boards of- corporate boards?
[1:05:46] Benson: Uh, well yes, I guess so. College board- I was on the Board of Lafayette College for, for um, 15 years. That was brought about by Bruce’s classmate, Harry Keefe, who was a large benefactor of Amherst College, um, Class of ‘43. And um, Harry was on that Board because he had gotten involved with the Board of Lafayette when his son went there. And they were looking for women to be on their board. They’d gone co-ed but their women graduates were still too young to be, you know, to have enough experience to be on a board.
[1:06:23] And um, so Harry asked me, well he called up Bruce and said, “would you ask Lucy if she would be on the Board [laughs] of Lafayette College?” and he said “you ask Lucy yourself.” Well, I ended up going on the board and it was a, it was a most, most interesting time to be on that board. There was a marvelous Chairman named Larry Ramer who comes from Los Angeles, and he was just determined to raise the academic level of the College, and we did do that in the course of those years. It’s quite a good institution, and really first-rate.
[1:06:55] Uh, but one gets to know- it’s more intense, on a, on a, or at least that was, more intense on that college board because we met 4 times a year and that’s not so often but somehow it’s a more, not quite sure how to put it, um. It’s more with you all the time than being on a corporate board, unless you got some big problem on a corporate board, and there were times where there were some big problems of management types or government contract types or audit problems that really get very intense, and they get very involved. It’s not a hands off, it’s not a spectator sport, being on a, on a board.
[1:07:43] Gordon: Uh, well you’re on the board, Chairman of the board I think of the Amherst Cinema Arts Center. How does that contrast or compare to some of these other-
[1:07:55] Benson: Oh well you know it’s the, more or less the same kind, it’s an entirely different scene of course, cinema and film, and all that sort of stuff, very different from insurance or department stores, or what have you. Um, or packaging. But it is the same. You gotta, boards of directors have a fiduciary responsibility for the financial welfare of the organization. You’re responsible for that. It’s a legal thing, not just an organizational thing.
[1:08:27] And, the problems you have, personnel prob- personnel issues, you have budget problems, you have audit problems, it’s really not all that different. What’s different is movies! How do you get movies? Who decides what movie comes to which theater? Distributors do, I’ve learned that. And you have a hard time if you’re a small theater, getting the really big movies, um, because you don’t have that much audience.
[1:08:55] And so the more screens you have, we have 3 and we will now have availability of 2 more, since the Northampton Pleasant St. Theater is going to be, has raised enough money and we are going to help them run their show. So now we’ll have 5 screens between the two of us. And this will enable us to have bigger and more- the most in demand films.
[1:09:20] Anyway, that sort of thing goes on all the time. You worry about money. And you worry about raising money. We are still raising money to pay for the building of the theater. And we’ve got, start off with 2.6 million to raise and we’re down to 100 thousand. That’s pretty exciting. And the last 100 thousand is probably going to be terribly hard to raise [laughs]. But in any case, we’re doing very financially, the movie house is.
[1:09:45] Gordon: And now that you’re back in Amherst more do you have, do you spend more time with the League, the local League than you-
[1:09:52] Benson: No not really, you know I got to some events, and I see them from time to time but I don’t go, I don’t know- I’m a bit in and out. I'm not really involved, I don’t want to be involved. Uh, you know, long time ago. But I get asked to do things and if I can, I do them.
[1:10:12] Gordon: Um, so, the future.
[1:10:17] Benson: Well.
[1:10:18] Gordon: What do you, do you look forward to a more peaceful time, a more restful time or [crosstalk]-
[1:10:24] Benson: I look forward, if you wann
a know, to a better administration of this country. Wouldn’t have to be very much better to be better. I think this administration has been a disaster for a lot of reasons and there’s no point in going into them now, but I would hope to have a Democrat in the White House the next time, and a Democratically, not necessarily overwhelmingly controlled Congress, but one with a workable majority, where the tyranny of the minority does not take place as it is now taking place.
[1:10:53] That's terrible- I'm very concerned about our government and about our public sphere and, um, about the ability of human beings to run their lives in a somewhat sensible fashion. Rational fashion. Can’t have, you know we'll never achieve total rationality because people are not totally rational. So just hope for the best. That’s what I hope for. That keeps me very busy because I’m very involved in watching what’s going on both in the world and in the country, and in the town, and-
[1:11:25] Gordon: And in the College I [crosstalk]-
[1:11:26] Benson: And in the College too. It takes a lot of time keeping up with [laughs].
[1:11:30] Gordon: Well. Thank you very much
[1:11:32] Benson: Thank you very much.
Lucy Benson is a graduate of Smith College, served as president of the National League of Women Voters (1968-1974), secretary of human services for Massachusetts (1975-1977), and U.S. undersecretary of state for security assistance, science, and technology (1977-1980). She was married to Bruce B. Benson who was a professor pf physics at Amherst from 1946-1990 and in 1974 she was awarded an honorary Amherst degree. There is now a Bruce B. Benson '43 and Lucy Wilson Benson Professorship in Physics.
Joel E. Gordon was the Stone Professor of Natural Science upon his retirement from the faculty in 2000 after forty-three years of teaching at Amherst. His focus was slow-temperature physics and superconductivity. He also served for eight years as the book review editor for the American Journal of Physics.
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