Charles Benton 1931-2015

Visionary Film Distributor and Philanthropist Helped Reinstitute Presidential Debates

Charles Benton was a determined, passionate, and agile businessman and philanthropist who, over many decades, pursued a vision of empowering people to use the latest communications tools to improve the lives of all.

Charles William Benton was born in February 13, 1931 in New York City to Helen Hemingway Benton and William Burnett Benton, then the head of the Benton and Bowles advertising firm.

Charles attended the Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Massachusetts. He graduated in 1949 before heading to Yale University. While there he met Marjorie Craig, a student at the Connecticut College for Women, and they married in 1953. Together they had three children -- Adrianne, Craig and Scott.

After graduating from Yale University in 1953, Charles began a long career in the media education and entertainment businesses. In 1953, Charles joined Britannica Films, owned by his father, who believed that “educational talking pictures” were a potent and largely unexploited medium, “perhaps the most striking opportunity for public service in the field today” – a view the younger Benton shared and pursued. Charles served in various positions before leaving to teach 5th grade at Washington Elementary School in Evanston (IL). He rejoined the company in 1959 as a salesman, covering the state of Illinois, and quickly became the company’s top seller. He rose to Vice President of Marketing in 1962 and eventually became President of Britannica Films. During a realignment of various Britannica companies, Charles became the president of the newly formed Encyclopaedia Britannica Education Corporation in 1966.

In 1967 at age 36, Benton resigned from the Encyclopaedia Britannica Education Corporation and created the nonprofit Fund for Media Research to study educational uses of new media. The U.S. Office of Education (now the Department of Education) hired the Fund to research the use of television in the sixteen largest U.S. school systems. Also in 1967, Charles exchanged a large block of his stock in the Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation in return for his sole ownership of Films, Inc., a company which distributed 16 millimeter versions of entertainment films produced by Hollywood studios mainly to civic, cultural and educational institutions. Charles recognized the educational value in these films, seeing they dealt with the realities of human existence in ways which made them ideal jumping-off points for serious discussions. He and wife Marjorie did just that by incorporating the films into the curriculum for youth classes at the Unitarian Church of Evanston.

The guiding principle for Films, Inc. and its parent company, Public Media, Inc., was: “Good Films That Sell.” The company grew into the biggest, and most important, distributor of films to the non-theatrical market in the 16mm and VHS formats. For many years, Films, Inc. controlled the exclusive rights to the 20th Century-Fox, Paramount, RKO Radio Pictures and MGM film libraries, as well as the Walt Disney library on a non-exclusive basis. But by 1997, with further technology changes, the company ended its relationship with the Hollywood studios and jumped head long into distributing classic and independent films on DVD from “The Classic Collection,” a joint venture with prestigious art film distributor Janus Films, and for special edition DVD publisher, The Criterion Collection, and select public television stations and independent filmmakers through its Home Vision Entertainment label.

Also in the late 1960’s Benton joined the Board of the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting (NCCB). The Washington group was founded in 1967 when President Lyndon Johnson's proposals and recommendations for funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting were meeting resistance in Congress. In 1974, Broadcasting magazine credited Benton, through his own contributions to the organization and helping in additional fundraising efforts, with rescuing NCCB and allowing the organization to continue its work prodding radio and television companies into being more responsive to the interests of the public.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Benton as Chairman of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (NCLIS) and as Chairman of the First White House Conference on Library and Information Services, held in November of 1979. The Conference produced 64 resolutions seeking a national information policy and helped launch a study exploring federal, state and local government library resources and services around the U.S. to better coordinate among government libraries and information services to meet both national and local needs. In 1980, Benton was reappointed for an additional five-year term, during which time he was elected Chairman Emeritus by unanimous vote of NCLIS Commissioners.

Charles founded the Benton Foundation as the legacy of his father, William, a public servant, later United States Senator (1949-53), who championed free speech and civil liberties -- proposing the motion for expulsion of Joseph McCarthy from the U.S. Senate in 1951. In his will, William Benton handed down the foundation’s mission of “good works in communication” and $8 million in Encyclopedia Britannica stock to support the organization.

Charles and Marjorie Benton initiated and provided the $200,000 grant that the League of Women Voters used to fund the televised presidential forums during the 1976 primaries. Those forums led to the televised presidential debates sponsored by the League later in 1976 -- the first such event since the Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960.

The Benton Foundation currently works to ensure that media and telecommunications serve the public interest and enhance democracy. The Foundation pursues this mission by seeking policy solutions that support the values of access, diversity and equity; by demonstrating the value of media and telecommunications for improving the quality of life for all; and by providing information resources to policymakers and advocates to inform communications policy debates. Over the years, the foundation has been a catalyst for increasing broadband deployment and adoption, particularly for America’s most vulnerable populations.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Benton as a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters which studied and recommended the public interest responsibilities that should accompany the broadcasters' receipt of digital television licenses. In December 1998, the Committee delivered its final report, Charting the Digital Broadcasting Future, calling for “a needed reassessment in light of dramatic changes in communications technology, market structures, and the needs of a democratic society.”

In 2012 President Barack Obama appointed Benton to serve on the National Museum and Library Services Board, an advisory body that includes twenty presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed members of the general public who have demonstrated expertise in, or commitment to, library or museum services. The Board advises the director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services on general policy and practices, and on selections for the National Medals for Museum and Library Service. In this role, Benton participated in a public March 2014 hearing, “Libraries and Broadband: Urgency and Impact,” examining the need for high-speed broadband in America’s libraries. Later that year, the Federal Communications Commission reformed and modernized E-Rate, a key program to make high-capacity broadband more affordable for schools and libraries.

Throughout his career, Benton has been an active board member and adviser for organizations in the arts, education and communications, including service on the original Illinois Arts Council Board, and more recently on the Illinois Humanities Council and The Partnership for a Connected Illinois. He has served on the boards of the Eisenhower Exchange Fellowships and the American Assembly for more than 30 years, was a trustee of the University of Chicago, Hampton Institute, and National College of Education for numerous terms. In film and television, Benton was a member of the founding board of the American Film Institute and the Chicago International Film Festival, served on the board of Chicago’s major public television station (WTTW) for 10 years, and was President of the National Citizen Committee for Broadcasting in the 1970’s. He has also served on the board of the National Foundation for the Preservation of Film in California and the Consumer Advisory Committee of the FCC in Washington, DC.

Charles Benton was elected a Field Museum Trustee in 2000 and the Board paid tribute to his many years of service by electing him a Life Trustee in 2006. Benton most recently served on the Integrative Research, Collections, and Government Relations Committees. At The Field Museum, Charles was a former Chairman of the Cultural Collections Committee (now called Anthropology Alliance). He and his wife Marjorie were active members of The Founders’ Council and avid collectors of American art, primarily pottery from the pueblo communities of Native Americans in the Southwestern United States.

Charles Benton has also been honored with many awards including: Golden Hugo Award, Chicago International Film Festival; Chicagoland Educational Film Festival Leonard Slatkin Humanitarian Award; Manship Prize, University of Louisiana; Distinguished Grantmaker of the Year (with his wife, Marjorie), Council on Foundations; Susan G. Hadden Pioneer Award, Alliance for Public Technology; Hyde Park Arts Center Honoree; Broadband Lifetime Achievement Award, Partnership for a Connected Illinois; and Everett C. Parker Award, United Church of Christ Office of Communication, Inc.

On April 29, 2015, Mr. Benton, 84, died at his home in Evanston from complications from renal cancer. He is survived by his loving wife of 62 years, Marjorie; daughter Adrianne Furniss and her husband, Robert; son, Craig, and his wife Tina Ashmore; five treasured grandchildren, Savannah Taylor (Hunter), Colby Benton, Hemingway Benton, Carrie Furniss, and Lily Furniss; and sister, Helen (Boley).

Family, friends, and colleagues remember Charles Benton not just for his many accomplishments, but his passion and enthusiasm; his values and persistent vision; his positive attitude, indomitable spirit and continuous optimism.

“The world feels emptier today,” said Bill Moyers, “like the forest when a great oak falls. And those of us whose lives were touched by Charles are a little lonelier knowing he is gone. What an enthusiast he was for things that mattered to democracy and humanity.”

“I am heartbroken at this loss of a friend and dauntless public interest champion,” said Michael Copps, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission now serving as special adviser to Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. “He did America proud.”

While he remained active in media reform until the end, Charles put the leadership of the Foundation, now the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, in the capable hands of his daughter, Adrianne Benton Furniss, and a strong, respected Board of Directors, thus assuring the continued vibrancy of the organization.

Memorial services for Charles Benton were held in Chicago and in Washington (DC) in 2015.