Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 15
 
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
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Princeton Personality by Jean Stratton


SEEKING SOLUTIONS: “A saying I like to keep in mind is ‘The pursuit of perfection prevents the accomplishment of the satisfactory.’ I like grappling with that and trying to find solutions to problems. I hope that is what I’ve accomplished while on Council.” Outgoing Princeton Borough Councilwoman Wendy Benchley, soon to focus her career on ocean conservation issues, is shown in her Princeton home.

After Nine Years on Borough Council, Wendy Benchley Sets New Agenda

I can’t begin to quantify Wendy’s contributions because they have been immeasurable.”

As Princeton Borough Councilwoman Wendy Benchley leaves her post this week after serving nine years, Mayor Mildred Trotman’s comments reflect the thoughts of many who have been associated with Ms. Benchley over the years.

Her dedication, commitment, energy, and hard work have impressed both colleagues and friends. Ms. Benchley’s characteristic willingness to spend the time needed to solve problems and find solutions and yet not relinquish her own strong convictions, in particular on the environment, traffic and transportation issues, and the preservation of the Princeton downtown, are hallmarks of her years on Council.

Notes her friend of long-standing, Sheldon Sturges, co-founder and managing director of Princeton Future: “The truly extraordinary thing about Wendy is that she has an extra boiler in her furnace, which she uses for the common good. She has an ability to reach out and care and act that few of us have. I have been very impressed with that capacity to care for the needs of others. And I think that everyone in the public sphere who has dealt with her feels kindly toward Wendy. She doesn’t leave a trail of rancor.”

Even-Handed

Mayor Trotman agrees with that observation. “I admire Wendy’s even-handed way of dealing with those who opposed her point of view. She was always able to be sympathetic to another view, but at the same time, she stuck to what she felt needed to be done. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with her over all these years, and I do so fully appreciate her ability to delve into projects and then her tenacity in sticking with that project. I will really miss Wendy.”

Ms. Benchley’s early life gave no outward sign that one day she would serve in government. The second child of Dr. Harrison and Dorcas Wesson, Wendy (actually Winifred, named for her grandmother), she was born and brought up in Montclair, N.J. The family also consisted of her three brothers and one sister. A surgeon, her father served in the Philippines in World War II, and after the war, the Wessons spent summers in Connecticut, skied in Vermont, and took a driving trip across the country, among other family vacations.

“Going to my grandparents’ house on an island off Stonington, Conn. was very much a part of my life,” recalls Ms. Benchley. “I spent summers up there during my childhood with my parents, siblings, all my cousins, and aunts and uncles. I loved it. We’d go to the beach, sail, play games, and we’d also read aloud. The older cousins would read to us, and we loved The Black Stallion books and Lassie Come Home.

“These are wonderful childhood memories. It was like living on a commune, with all the cousins and the different personalities having to get along together. It was also a working farm, with cows and chickens. I milked cows and collected eggs.”

Special Time

In Montclair, Wendy liked school, played tennis (a sport she continues to enjoy) and field hockey, as well as lots of outdoor games with neighborhood friends. “We had great times with all the neighborhood kids, including ‘gang warfare’ when we’d throw horse chestnuts at each other. It was a special time.” On weekends, she and her friends went to the movies (“after I had done my household chores”). A special favorite was From Here to Eternity.

“I also loved Elvis Presley,” she says, with a smile. “He made my spine tingle!” In high school, Wendy liked English class and developed a lifelong love of reading. And in a hint of what was to come, she ran for student council and was elected class secretary.

“Interestingly,” she points out, “there was a large African-American community in Montclair in those days. This was in the 1950s, and it was very integrated. We all did a lot of socializing together. It was very open.”

After graduating from Montclair High School in 1959, Wendy enjoyed a European trip with the family. “It was a grand tour across France, Italy, Switzerland, etc. It was wonderful,” she recalls. “My parents were so special and so much fun. Although he was a busy doctor, my father thought it was very important to spend time with the family.”

Policy Issues

Wendy went to Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., majoring in psychology and philosophy, and she also organized conferences with other colleges on public policy issues, which stimulated an increasing interest in government generally.

“By junior year, I began to wish I had majored in government and political science,” she explains. “I was taking more courses in that field by then.

“The seminal event for me in college, however, was the Civil Rights Movement. People were picketing Woolworth’s in the South, so a couple of students and I picketed Woolworth’s in Saratoga Springs. The police chief arrested us! Photographers and news people took pictures of us, and it was on the front page of the newspaper.”

Wendy had the courage of her convictions, and she was not deterred. As she says, “Protesting in solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement was so important. I like grass roots action. That’s where a great deal of change comes from. That’s the way I’ve tried to participate in Princeton, working with people and trying to get them to participate.”

Wendy liked college — including a visit to Princeton for a blind date — but by the time she graduated in 1963, she was ready for new adventures. Her first full-time job was with American Field Service in New York. “I loved that,” she remembers. “I’d chaperone students from France and other countries, and I was also able to travel abroad.

There was more going on in her life now, however. The summer after graduation, she met a special young man in Nantucket. As she explains, “By now, I was madly in love! I had thought I wouldn’t get married for years. I’d planned on a career — but then I met him. I had worked as a chambermaid in various inns all over the country in the summers. That’s how I got to see a lot of places. My last summer doing this, I worked as a hostess at the Jared Coffin House in Nantucket.

Young Man

“One night, I had gone downstairs to help a busy waitress in the bar, and I noticed this dashing young man, smoking a Lucky Strike. I was a pack-a-day smoker then, and I was having a nicotine fit. I asked him for a drag on his cigarette, and he handed it over. I took a puff, then gave it back, and went upstairs. Later, he came up, and asked if I were free that night.”

In fact, she already had a date, but decided this was too good to pass up, and said she was definitely free.

The “dashing young man” turned out to be Peter Benchley, then a reporter at The Washington Post, later to become famous as the author of the best-selling novel Jaws, which was also a mega-hit movie. Within two weeks, the couple decided to get married! “I went home to tell my parents,” remembers Ms. Benchley, “and my dear, wonderful mother said, ‘That’s so nice, dear. We’d love to meet him.” As it turned out, they waited a year, and were married in September 1964. By then, Mr. Benchley was an editor at Newsweek, and the Benchleys lived in New York, where

Wendy continued to work at American Field Service. “Peter was TV editor for awhile, and we had three TVs in our bedroom, so he could watch all three networks. This was pre-cable, pre-video taping, etc.,” says Ms. Benchley.

First Child

Soon, they headed to Washington, D.C., when Mr. Benchley became a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson. While in Washington, their first child, a daughter, Tracy, was born in 1967.

After President Johnson decided not to run again in 1968, “Peter was out of a job, and he was free-lancing,” continues Ms. Benchley. “We were living as vagabonds in various houses that my parents found for us, when the owners were away, including in Stonington (where son Clayton was born in 1969. A third child, Christopher, would come along in 1987) and Glen Ridge, N.J. We were looking for a place to live, and we didn’t have any money. Peter wanted to be near New York, and finally, we were able to get a house in Pennington in 1970.”

Their lives were about to change dramatically. “Peter had this idea for a novel,” explains Ms. Benchley, “and he wrote Jaws in the Blackwell Furnace Repair Shop in Pennington. When he was starting to write it, he told me about the idea, and I said, ‘Honey, get another idea!’ That’s the difference between a practical person like me and someone with an amazing imagination.”

Jaws was published in 1974, and after the movie rights were later sold, the Benchleys decided to move to Princeton. “Princeton made sense. Peter still wanted to be near New York, and we hoped for a place with heart and soul. We liked the Princeton downtown and the idea of a university town. We also liked the diversity of the community.”

The magnitude of the success of Jaws was at first overwhelming, recalls Ms. Benchley. “When Peter told me the movie rights had been purchased and what it sold for, I burst into tears! I said, ‘Our lives are ruined! Too much notoriety, too much change.’ Little did I know then how much Jaws would open up the world to us.”

It was hard in some ways in the beginning, she adds. “The attitude of some people changed toward us, whether out of envy or a notion of our ‘celebrity’ status. They didn’t treat us the same. They didn’t discuss things or argue with us anymore. It was as if, somehow, we were almost not there in the same way as before. That shocked me.”

Major Focus

During the Benchley’s four years in Pennington, Ms. Benchley had become involved with the League of Women Voters. “I was also a member of a grass roots group that got recycling going.” she explains. “We found that with enough information and persuasion, you really can get people to change their habits.”

This launched what was to become a major focus in Ms. Benchley’s life — the need to protect and preserve the environment.

“In 1986, I was nominated to become a member of the board of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF),” she says. “This is a non-profit environmental advocacy organization with branches in many cities in the U.S. We worked on many major enviromental issues.”

During her 17 years with the organization, including two terms as nominating committee chair, Ms. Benchley realized the ongoing need to have a range of experts involved in the cause. “We saw how important it was to continue not only to have top-notch scientists, but also economists, attorneys, and business men and women, on the board, all people who can help the organization achieve its goals.

“How do you go about formulating an effective environmental policy? You need to have all the ‘stakeholders’ participate. EDF was one of the first groups to go to major corporations and businesses and show them how it is economically beneficial for them to change their practices. We were able to convince McDonald’s and UPS, among many others.”

During this time, Mr. Benchley’s career continued to flourish with the publication of more novels, movie production, and at the same time, he developed a strong interest in ocean conservation and protection of marine life.

Scuba Diving

He and Mrs. Benchley took many trips together, including scuba diving explorations for National Geographic. “We had trips around the world,” she recalls. “We saw great white sharks, and did conservation films. I had to overcome my fear of diving, but I was determined not to be left behind.”

Sometimes, it was more than she bargained for. “Peter liked to tell a story about my saving his life,” she reports. “He had gone down in a cage to watch the Great Whites, and one was trying to bite through the rope which attached the cage to the boat. If that happened, the shark would drag the cage to the bottom of the ocean with Peter in it. Just in time, I was able to jerk the rope out of the jaws of the shark. It was an adrenaline-rush moment!”

“More recently on another dive, I swam with a giant manta ray, with a 15-foot wing span, and on a night dive in the Maldives we encountered three white-tipped sharks, a five-foot moray eel, a huge sleeping turtle, and a five-foot barracuda, all, except for the turtle, actively feeding within the beam of my flashlight.”

Such matchless experiences reinforced Ms. Benchley’s determination to do all she could to help protect the environment, whether it be air, land, or water.

Back home in Princeton, she helped found the New Jersey Environmental Federation, which received an award from then Governor James Florio. As she explains, “A young man arrived at the door one day, and said his organization wanted to put all the different environmental grass roots groups together, consolidate them, and could I help. I said ‘yes.’

“We had a Princeton area committee, including business people and community volunteers — a mix of supporters. We created a traveling show called ‘Home-Safe-Home,’ which showed how to use safe products to clean the house that would not harm the environment.”

Political Action

As Ms. Benchley became increasingly involved in environmental issues, she began to see the importance of political action in furthering constructive policies. The proposed building of an incinerator on Duck Island south of Trenton was the issue which propelled her into politics.

“This incinerator was a big issue across New Jersey,” she explains. “The state decided to build an incinerator in each county to burn everything, including plastic. It would be expensive, polluting, give off mercury vapor, PCBs, and dioxins, and it would defeat recycling. I was in total opposition. This was the reason I decided to run for office. I was so frustrated with our lack of power to be able to stop this. I realized the only way to have power was if some of us got elected.”

Ms. Benchley was able to get on the ballot as an independent candidate for the Mercer County Board of Freeholders. It was at this time that she met Beth Healey, a Princeton resident, active in politics, who teaches history at City College in Philadelphia.

“I remember listening to Wendy talk,” says Ms. Healey, “and I thought, ‘She’s really good.’”

Although Ms. Benchley lost the election, she did well enough to run the next year, this time as a Democrat. “Wendy asked if I’d be interested in helping her, and I became her campaign manager,” continues Ms. Healey. “We’d go every night to different counties and talk to people. Wendy has a great capacity to relate to people from all walks of life, to sit down and listen to them. She really enjoys diversity. I have never met anyone like her. She is the most wonderful person.”

In the second election, Ms. Benchley prevailed and served as a freeholder for two and a half years. “I loved running for office, including going around the county to different towns and meetings,” she recalls. “I met a great variety of marvelous people, and I liked hearing about their lives and talking about the issues.”

Eventually, she adds, the incinerator was blocked from construction by a ruling of the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Local Level

During her time as a freeholder, she had also worked with the Princeton Community Democratic Organization. and gradually, her interest turned to Princeton politics. “I began to think about running for Borough Council. As a freeholder, I was looking at issues, such as transportation, traffic, affordable housing in the county, and I realized this was equally important on the local level.”

Former Borough Mayor Marvin Reed urged Ms. Benchley to enter the race. As he says, “There was a vacancy on Council, and I went to Wendy and said, ‘We want you here in Princeton.’ I’ve known her for at least 25 years. When I first got interested in local political activity, she was often one of the people involved in flying the environmental flag. It was good to have her on Council. She added balance because she was so interested in environmental issues, and she was also interested in the Planning Board on which she served.

“Wendy was also a strong supporter of what we tried to do downtown with the Albert Hinds Plaza, the parking garage, and our efforts to make the downtown more exciting and a focus for people. I know whenever I need another strong advocate alongside me, I can always call on Wendy, and she’ll be there.”

While on Council, in addition to serving on the Planning Board, Ms. Benchley was on the Master Plan Committee, and liaison to the Princeton Environmental Commission, Traffic and Transportation Committees, and the Shade Tree Committee. “I specialized in land use planning, traffic and transportation issues, and preservation of the downtown,” she explains. “I felt strongly that the new plaza and parking garage downtown would benefit the merchants, the citizens, and the town. Being a Councilwoman allows you the opportunity to make decisions about the town and also go out into the community and pull people together to try to solve a problem.

“For example,” she points out, “there was parking problem around the high school, with complaints about where and how students were parking their cars. I thought, ‘Let’s bring the school board, principal, students, and neighbors together to find a solution. Now, there is permit parking, and it’s successful. The students understand that being able to park is a privilege and a responsibility.”

Former Princeton Township Committeewoman Casey Lambert, a long-time friend of Ms. Benchley, and who is running again for Township Committee, worked with her on the parking situation. “I saw Wendy in action during that time and saw how effective she can be. I’ve known Wendy since we were young, young marrieds in Princeton many years ago, and even then she showed an amazing social awareness. When she entered politics, she could institutionalize her energy, intelligence, thoughtfulness, and concern for the public good.

Sense of Humor

“Wendy is one of the warmest, most caring people I know. She also has a lively sense of humor, which helps enormously in politics.”

Princeton resident Gail Ullman, who served with Ms. Benchley on the Planning Board and on the Princeton Environmental Commission, agrees, and notes important lessons she has taken from Ms. Benchley.

“I have learned a great deal from her by the examples she set, among which are: (1) Drink a cup of caffeinated coffee before a meeting to be sure you are as alert as your colleagues should you need to debate them in the wee hours. (2) Set clear priorities, state them, and stick with them. (3) Never assume that your listeners will ‘get it’ the first time you state something; state it again and again until they think it is an inescapable conclusion. (4) Always treat the public with respect and be polite even when the public or your colleagues are being intemperate. (5) Look great and pay attention to the subject at hand no matter what sad event may be happening in your private life.

“What I remember is how she did these things — with zest and honesty.”

Ms. Benchley remains concerned about Princeton’s future. “What is important about Princeton is that there is such a variety of income levels, the diversity of the people, and having the University here. I think it is very important to keep Princeton diverse — economically, racially, and with all ages represented.

“Princeton Future has done a great job, as have the Master Plan Committee and Borough Council, in getting the populace to be aware of how people want Princeton to grow. Things have to evolve, but beautiful areas in Princeton, including open space and historically-significant houses, should be preserved. And certainly, the downtown should be preserved.”

Big Difference

She is particularly pleased with the planned introduction of jitney service in the downtown. “I have been talking about the jitney since I came to Council. It’s wonderful that Princeton University will start this, and eventually, it could become a joint venture with the Borough. We really need four to six jitneys zipping around town. Most of the traffic in Princeton is local. Even a 10 percent reduction of cars could make a big difference.”

In addition to her work on Council, Ms. Benchley has also spent time working with Creative Theatre, a very popular Princeton institution in the 1970s and ’80s, and she has been a strong supporter and fund-raiser for Isles, the Trenton organization which fosters self-sufficient families in sustainable communities.

In 2003, Ms. Benchley was honored by the Delaware & Raritan Greenway for her “25 years of tireless work in environmental preservation and land stewardship.”

Now after nine years on Council, she has decided to turn her attention full-time to to ocean conservation, and it is a bittersweet moment. “Serving on Council has been the most stimulating and fascinating job I’ve ever had. Government is such a collaborative process. I never did anything without the help of other people. I may have initiated things, but anything that was accomplished was through the efforts of others.”

Shark Protection

Two years ago, Mrs. Benchley’s husband died, and her plans to concentrate on ocean preservation is a way to continue work they both did in that field. “I want to look into all aspects of ocean life and especially try to work with Peter’s legacy in shark protection,” she explains. “For example, I will soon be speaking before the Oaks Bluff Board of Selectmen in Martha’s Vineyard on the need to stop their shark fishing tournament. Sharks are being decimated around the world. People should celebrate their marine life, not destroy it for the sake of recreation.

“I look forward to helping in whatever small way I can to move the ocean conservation agenda. I also want to accompany that with wonderful times spent with family (now including five grandchildren) and friends, and more time on the ocean, on a boat, and diving to be with the creatures of the ocean. I want to combine ocean conservation with field trips.

“The most important thing is really to have joy in what you are doing,” she continues. “Love, love what you do. How truly fortunate Peter and I felt as we were so blessed when Jaws became such a great success. It liberated us to follow our hearts’ desires and our intellectual pursuits.”

It also gave them an opportunity to be exceedingly generous, notes Beth Healey. “They never said anything about it, but Wendy and Peter were so generous in so many ways — to the Democratic Party, to charities, organizations, and to individuals. They were two of the most generous people I have known.”

Not all, but many who serve in government or in a volunteer capacity for their community do so because they wish to be agents for positive change, and in that pursuit, they are optimists. Wendy Benchley is one of them.

As Peter Benchley said of her to a friend: “Wendy is the one who can find the tinsel on any tree.”

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