Charles Benton, philanthropist and Democratic fundraiser, dies at 84

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Charles Benton | Provided photo

Charles Benton’s life is the personification of the saying that for those to whom much is given, much is expected.

A descendant of “teachers and preachers,” Mr. Benton traced his heritage to the Mayflower. His father, William Burnett Benton, co-founded a legendary ad agency, Benton and Bowles, that was so successful it made money even during the Great Depression. He bought Encyclopedia Britannica.

William Benton became a vice president at the University of Chicago and an assistant secretary of state in the Truman administration. Elected as a U.S. senator from Connecticut, he denounced Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy years before many summoned the courage to challenge the Red Scare fearmonger of the 1950s.

With a father like that, some kids might have kicked back and moved to Newport to sail, or spent their days with fast cars and horses.

But “it would never have occurred to him,” said Charles Benton’s daughter, Adrianne Furniss. His father told him, “ ‘Charles, you have to work.’ ”

“He wasn’t a trust fund kid,” she said. “I think he always felt like he had to work, and the money that his father ended up leaving him was the money that was used to set up the Benton Foundation.”

Mr. Benton taught fifth grade at Evanston’s Washington School and became a philanthropist, Democratic fundraiser and adviser to three presidents. The organization he founded in 1981, the Benton Foundation, works to close the digital divide by advocating access to high-speed Internet to people in poor or remote places.

He and his wife of 62 years, Marjorie, provided a $200,000 grant to the League of Women Voters that led to the televising of the 1976 presidential debates, the first debates broadcast since the Kennedy-Nixon matches of 1960.

His holdings included Public Media Inc., a distributor of public TV programming, and Films Inc., a distributor of Hollywood movies and independent films — including the documentary “Hoop Dreams” — to schools, libraries and prisons.

Mr. Benton, 84, died April 29 of kidney cancer at The Mather in Evanston.

He and Marjorie often hosted fundraisers at their Evanston home for once-obscure politicians. “Jimmy Carter before he really was known, the same with Bill Clinton. Both Barack and Hillary were at our house,” their daughter said.

Last year, President Barack Obama named him to serve until 2018 on the National Museum and Library Services Board.

“We will fondly remember Charles as the educational distributor for ‘Hoop Dreams,’ ” Gordon Quinn, executive producer of the documentary, said on the website for its production company, Kartemquin Films. Calling him a “tireless, lifelong advocate for public media and democracy,” Quinn said, “We share Charles’ deep commitment to using communications and media as a tool for solving problems.” Mr. Benton’s daughter is chairman of the board at Kartemquin.

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Charles Benton and Gordon Quinn, executive producer of “Hoop Dreams.” Mr. Benton was the distributor for the documentary in classrooms. | Provided photo

The Benton Foundation operated on the philosophy that commercial powers might not always have the public interest in mind. It spotlighted media mega-mergers, like the now-scuttled Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal.

“As the world gets more consolidated, there is less choice for content,” Adrianne Furniss said. “A political point of view may be expressed by these consolidated media companies, and the Benton Foundation wants to keep a diverse media system for vulnerable populations.”

Because high-speed Internet is crucial for jobs, medical files and educational courses, the foundation works with libraries, nonprofits and local governments to advocate for broadband.

Mr. Benton “was among the first to recognize that access to communications networks is more than an economic or first amendment issue; it is a social justice issue,” FCC chief Tom Wheeler said in a statement.

“He was a leader ahead of his time in seeing the connection between media, broadcast, information policy, telecommunications and libraries, and he could bring it all together, empowering the public and ensuring their right to know,” said Larra Clark, a program director for the American Library Association.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to chair the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. Two decades later, President Bill Clinton made him a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters.

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Marjorie and Charles Benton | Provided photo

He met his future wife on a blind date while he attended Yale University and she studied at the Connecticut College for Women. She is a co-founder of the Peace Museum and the Chicago Foundation for Women.

They raised their children to be socially involved. “We went to marches — civil rights, anti-Vietnam War,” Adrianne Furniss said. “That’s the way we grew up. . . . Nobody went to baseball — [it was] ‘The world’s got to be a better place.”

Mr. Benton was a lifetime board member of the Field Museum and a founding member of the American Film Institute.

He also is survived by his son, Craig; a sister, Helen Boley, and five grandchildren. Another son, Scott, died before him. Memorial services will be held in Chicago and Washington, D.C., later this year.

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