Memorial to Gail Benedict

A Good Life: A good life is an ever-growing and expanding life with ever-widening horizons, an ever-widening circle of friends and acquaintances and an ever-expanding opportunity for usefulness and creativity. Keep an expectant attitude towards life. Believe that what is in store for you is better than anything you had before. The way to grow old happily is to expect better things right up to the end. -- Written by Lilya Becker (gail's sister) before Lilya's death.

I knew Gail was an absolutely unique and original personality from the moment she first set foot in this meeting house some seven or eight years ago. Then and thereafter, no matter the occasion or circumstance, Gail was never at a loss for words, words that were often apt, ironic, worldly-wise, or just wise, grounded as I came to know in a life experience not only diverse and rich but also fabulous in the original sense of the word. Indeed like a storybook figure out of the Arabian Nights, it seemed she had been almost everywhere and seen almost everyone and done almost everything.

In fact I think it was not one life she lived but several and some simultaneously. There was Gail the Red Cross volunteer during World War Two, Gail the actress, Gail the PR manager for a swank New York hotel, Gail the talk show host, Gail the world traveler, Gail the Guadalajara newspaper woman, Gail the theatre impresario, and Gail the member, board member, or leader of the countless groups, organizations, and societies she supported with energy, enthusiasm, wit, and intelligence throughout a 90 year life time.

Let me share one marvelous story she told once about one of those lives, her time in England during World War Two.

Always one who enjoyed an evening out, she and friends had forgotten about the blackout. What to do? How to get home? They had a car but the fog made driving treacherous and in any case turning on the headlights was verboten. Ever resourceful, our Gail rose to the occasion as always. She directed two of the soldiers in her party to straddle the headlights and to use flashlights to guide the driver through the murk and muddle of a dark and stormy night in rural wartime England. For the next hour, round curves, over hills, in and out of small villages, they inched forward with Gail barking encouragement to the flashlight bearers like a four-star general master-minding the Normandy invasion. In my anthology of larger-than-life Gail stories, I call this one: “Gail Commanding The Troops.” For me, this story embodies much of the essential Gail, the indomitable, take-charge readiness for whatever life brought her way. In fact, for someone like Gail, who saw all the world not only as a stage but as very much her own stage, the readiness was indeed all!

Of course, each one of us who knew Gail has a favorite Gail story. I have no doubt we will continue to share them for years to come. She would have liked that I think.

But whatever the stories we choose to treasure and to tell, I’m confident that most of them will illustrate a single remarkable fact about what happened whenever her one well-lived life (or should I say her many well-lived lives?) touched the lives of others (my own included). “Learn at last that anywhere you may expect grace,” said Thornton Wilder. And unexpectedly and unpredictably it was grace that Gail made happen, enriching the world everyday whatever she did, wherever she went.

What a rare and wonderful gift: adding to the poetry of our common life from the unique originality of her own. -- David Lane --

Some reflections concerning Gail Benedict- Gail spent three years and two days with us here at Sunnyside. Her lovely heavily lidded eyes appeared somewhat sleepy, but thoughts were constantly coursing through her active mind. She thrived on conversation and competition. I recall an occasion when a Mexican family visited Sunnyside. Only the husband spoke a bit of English. I led them on a tour of the campus. On our way, we encountered Gail. Soon she was engaging two adults and three children in rapid fire Spanish. I didn’t try to interrupt. The dialogue extended into more than thirty minutes. Gail had enabled an estranged family in unfamiliar settings to feel at home. Competitively, Gail enjoyed challenging her sister, Lilyan in scrabble. I often imagined entering the fray, but somehow I never mustered the nerve. Gail had a deep fondness for Lilyan. They seemed to compliment each other, and enhance each other’s experiences. The lovely portraits on Gail’s walls captivated me. talent seems to have seeped through her family in thick, rich deposits. -- a Sunnyside worker --

Thinking of our dear friend, Gail Benedict  I have always called Gail “The President of Guadalajara,” because for most of the years that Glenn and I have known her she has been in charge of, and the principal organizer for, more groups and clubs than anyone else we’ve ever known. There are hundreds—maybe thousands—of people who have met each other, who have engaged in scintillating conversation, who have been helped to contribute to their local community, who have had a lot of fun because of Gail Benedict, and for such a force among us, we should all be extremely grateful. But is isn’t only about Gail’s organizing ability I want to talk today, though what we would have done without her for so many years as the Banda Clinic Board of Directors struggled to keep the place open for business, I do not know. Her fund-raising efforts helped to stave off disaster more than once. However, what I want to note about Gail right now is that she is a multi-talented, extremely intelligent, gracious lady who provides for us all an inspirational example of how we may live a life full of usefulness and engagement for all of the time we have on this earth. Friendship is one of life’s great gifts. Friendship with such a person as Gail Benedict is a truly enriching experience. You have added a great deal to our lives, Gail. We have enjoyed your stories, your charm, and your intelligent observations about it all. May you go on making those observations and being part of our most cherished contacts for years and years to come. -- Janice Lommen Hatfield --

Visiting Gail I don’t know how it started. It just did. I began attending Harrisonburg Unitarian Universalist Church in 1998 and was immediately captivated by the Sunday “Joys and Concerns” period where members came to the front of the church and shared the otherwise, too often, bottled-up-tight happiness and pain of their lives. I needed that, and when I shared my pain the first Sunday, something extraordinary for the shy, hurt part of me that lived ever so lonely inside, without knowing it, I released my spirit into this space. Immediately, otherwise absolutely strange people approached me after the service with caring, gentle words. In reflection, I realize that this is what makes my regular return here something of a sacred act.

But in addition to this unloading of my own spirit, I appreciated immediately, the words of the other members and friends, and one of those was Gail Benedict. I’m not sure what caught my attention first. I just know that I was delighted. Was it her Spanish experience, her ongoing travelogue, her ability at clever, unabashed, namedropping, her life in the theatre, her carefully chosen witty comments, or her artsy mode of attire? I don’t know. I just know that something about her sharing hooked into me. As a borne performer, equally eager to have center stage as I was, Gail shared on a regular basis. I doubt if she would have attended otherwise. I can relate to that.

And then, rather suddenly Gail was gone. Health problems were cropping up in her life and regular attendance was difficult or forbidden. Somewhere inside me, I felt I owed this church a favor, for being here for me, and I decided, somewhat subliminally I suppose, that I could attempt giving something back to the church by keeping in touch with Gail. Maybe that’s the way all great friendships start. One person thinking they actually have something to give another.

So the 5 year relationship began. First on Campbell Street, then to Camelot, back to Campbell Street, over to RMH, down the road to Sunnyside, back to Campbell Street, RMH, Camelot, Sunnyside. I lost track. Gail had many new homes. But I made an effort to visit her every Monday evening when I was not out of town.

At first I brought food, or flowers or little trinkets. Soon I realized these things were not what Gail looked forward to at all. Most of all she wanted to visit, look into my eyes, establish an intelligent, mutually inspirational, rapport that shared who we were and how we saw the world. Gail was the cream-of-her-peers when it came to conversation. Her life work in the theatre, as a Red Cross co-ordinator in Europe, a talk-show hostess, and public relations personality for Hilton International, prepared her to be the very best in one-on-one communication. Nothing else was as important to her. While her sister Lilya, with whom Gail finally, rather reluctantly shared her new gentleman caller friend, read or listened to books late into the night, Gail wanted the real, live, talking experience. No other form of communication could equal that mode to her theatre-trained knack of listening, timing and delivery. This is where Gail entered the realm of the divine. This is where Gail ended up giving me much more than I could ever give to her.

Never once did Gail suggest selling more furniture, reading more books, acquiring more things, or attaining more degrees, held any of the secrets of life. Rather, she would ever so gently listen to me talk about my work, my ideas, my family, and ever so gently correct me, the way a truly good friend will, when my vocabulary, my thinking, or my delivery was badly off course. Her conversation back to me, founded in her life experience, magically joined with my thoughts. I’m sure she sometimes winced patiently inside, as I attempted to compete with her and Lil in yet another game of Scrabble. Out of the 50 to 100 games we played, I actually won once and I was trying really hard every time.

Our dear Gail was no lame dame. When she sat in front of Johnny Carson on national television in that hat that apparently attracted a small flock of doves on the way to the studio, or when she hosted Prince Phillip at the Hilton, or when she visited the Maharajah of Jaipur while on a junket half way round the world that she had craftily developed out of a sweepstakes trip to Mexico, or when she hosted Placido and Marta Domingo, Hugh Downs, Zsa Zsa, Eva, and Magda Gabor, and Helen Hayes on her talk radio show, Gail was all about being “on stage.” Gail proved that she could be witty, influential and intelligent, and like today’s women in high places that it was OK to be “opinionated.” Gail was not that “brassy” opinionated that pushes people away, rather she was what I would call, “cleverly opinionated,” sharing stories based on facts and experience, the kind that draws people closer.

And so now there will be no more Monday evening visits. No more holding Gail’s hand, feeding her squares of her favorite Hershey’s chocolate bar, talking to her in conversations that were more and more one-sided, yet distinctly Gail. But that part of Gail I found divine, will never leave me. In the middle of a conversation, somewhere, I will reach out for an otherwise undeveloped part of my own ability to connect verbally, or I will lay down the book I am reading in favor of making a phone call to an acquaintance, I will pay a visit to an old friend rather than just thinking about it, and in my mind. I will give homage to Gail. When I take a few extra minutes to listen to the story of a child, or a peer, or a senior, I will remember Gail’s admonition that there is no greater gift than the present moment. All the books on my bookshelf will take me into the past or the future, but conversation will gently nudge us into the present.

As with all other friends and family whose bodies no longer function, I will imagine Gail’s life encapsulated in broad waves of little packets of infinitesimal energy strings, a power forever present in the universe to those who want to reach out and . Energy strings reminiscent of the power we feel when we are talking and in the presence of another person—when we share the heartfelt stories of our lives, when we can really reach out and touch another person with feelings that a letter could never express. Waves of energy I can pretend to ignore, or give my attention. When I am frantically pecking out just one more e-mail communication, feeling cleverly efficient, I will be reminded that Gail would probably consider this a somewhat primitive form of communication. But when I hold a baby, or hug another person who might have difficulty speaking, or when I give my undivided attention in speaking and listening to another person, then I will feel Gail’s presence, and understand once again why the magic of the theatre, that finely honed ritual of telling our stories, captivates us all. -- Merle Wenger --