On Tuesday morning, April 18, 2023, Eric Benjamin (C’73), the University’s first director of multicultural affairs and beloved former employee passed away. He was a wonderful man whose memory lives on in the hearts of many family members, friends, students, alumni, and faculty here at Sewanee. In order to honor his life and achievements, The Purple decided to reach out to some Sewanee alumni who enjoyed close relationships with “Mr. B,” as he is fondly called by many. Below, you will read kind words from alumni and members of the Benjamin Network about how Mr. B’s life positively impacted theirs as students and individuals.
Joseph Riley Land (C’98) currently lives in Nashville, TN and is the owner of THE RILEY/LAND COLLECTION, a small e-commerce and distribution business.
When I was a freshman in college, I was afloat, lost in trying to find my footing. A lot of people go to Sewanee because they fall in love with the beauty of the campus or the small classrooms or the overall vibe. I went there because they had the best financial aid package. I really had no anchor.
I made a small group of friends, one of whom worked in the Office of Minority Affairs. We ended up in that office many, many times, hanging out like it was our dorm room. At first, I didn’t say much to the man whose office it was, but eventually we began to talk and learn who each other were. Again, this was the Office of Minority Affairs so he was a little unsure what to do with me, but eventually it felt like he just sighed and said, “Yeah, he’s one of mine too.”
And with that, I found my anchor. I had a place I could feel comfortable on a campus that I liked, but didn’t love. Eric Benjamin’s office was a safe space for me, allowing my shy self to feel comfortable in a way I hadn’t since arriving at Sewanee.
Over the years Mister B became my mentor (literally, adding me to the Faculty/Mentor Program and making me his mentee) and friend. I remember many times we would pop up at his house (why did we do that??) and he would give us a glass of the best lemonade in recorded history and a life lesson. And then kick us out. The kicking us out part was another life lesson – don’t overstay your welcome.
I wrote a piece for the Sewanee Magazine about Mister B (appropriately enough titled “Life Lessons and Lemonade” in the early 2000s, which brought us closer. I would swing by campus while I was driving between Atlanta and a visit to my parents, making a b-line for Mister B’s office so I could get advice on whatever was brewing in my life.
Years later, after I moved to NYC, I reached out to Mister B to see if I could bring some of my singer friends to his jazz coffeehouses. Side note – he is the one who taught me to love jazz. We booked artists for 3-4 years and each time Mister B was so excited to have us there.
I grew to love Sewanee, but I will also say that my favorite part about going back to campus was a trip to see my friend, Eric Benjamin, where I was guaranteed a laugh, some wisdom, and a prompt to go on living my life and get out of his office. lol
Eric. Mr. Benjamin. Mister B – you will be missed. You held so many of us up when we didn’t even realize we needed holding up. You inspired hundreds upon hundreds of students to become better adults. And you always, if nothing else, made us feel accepted.
Cynthia Lyons (C’98) currently lives in Memphis, Tennessee and is a Branch Operations Partner with Truist.
Tuesday morning, I received the news of Mr. Benjamin’s passing. I was not ready for that one. I was still adjusting to the thought of him being retired.
When I started my freshman year at Sewanee, I came up with the idea that I was not getting involved in anything. After working in student government throughout junior high and high school, I was disappointed in people who didn’t want to work equally as hard. In my mind, I was going to study, do my work, make a few friends, and that would be it. I didn’t know that at the beginning Mr. Benjamin and Mrs. Benjamin would become integral parts of my time at Sewanee and beyond. Or that I would become active and involved in organizations and activities.
I spent my junior and senior years working as Mr. B’s work-study student. Those two years as his work-study student helped me to grow and learn communication, networking, planning and execution skills that have helped me through all areas of my life. Working for and with Mr. Benjamin also helped me most of all learn to develop and cultivate relationships. Through different projects and events and, as he would jokingly say, running the office and him, I learned a valuable skill in relationship building that has served me well in my career and lifelong friendships.
Mr. Benjamin had a knack for pushing students out of their comfort zones and helping them grow. He created a safe space for students to be themselves. I am most appreciative of the time and effort Mr. Benjamin dedicated to students like myself. He was able to deliver tremendous impact with his presence and tireless energy day in and day out. Mr. Benjamin was present in many moments for students and still able to be an active husband, father and community member. I am grateful to Mrs. Benjamin, Vincent, Keenan and Michael for sharing him with us for so long. My heart is heavy today at the loss of Mr. B., but I am forever grateful for the life he lived poured out in service to others. The seeds he has planted, and the influence of his legacy will live on through his students. Rest well, Mr. B.
Gamma Sigma Phi is a fraternity on Sewanee’s campus that was founded in 1999 by nine African American students and became the first historically black fraternity on campus.
More than just a man
More than just a man.
More than just a mentor.
More than just a friend.
Mr. Benjamin was the highest example of dignity of character that could be seen in ourselves.
He was an island in a current, anchor in the wind, and a light in a box.
Mr. Benjamin was an example, and in many cases our first example, of a person who appeared to have it together. He was an example of the possibilities of success: a kind attorney, a beautiful wife, brilliant, kind, and handsome boys, and respect in the community he built.
These are the hats he wore.
Mr. Benjamin supported, challenged, and advocated for the most vulnerable and least represented in our society within an isolated community that misunderstood and often worked against us. In our community, Mr. B paved the way for us to be greater than what others expected, greater than we expected, and greater than what we could even dream for ourselves.
These are the clothes he wore.
As we reflect on his passing, we are igniting the best of Mr. Benjamin in ourselves because we have become him. We are brothers, fathers, husbands, leaders, and servants. We are successful, brilliant, kind, handsome, respected, and powerful. We are the Benjamin Network. We are Gamma Sigma Phi. We are Phi Sigma Theta.
We are Mr. Benjamin.
As a result of Mr. Benjamin’s passing, Gamma Sigma Phi will honor Mr. Benjamin by creating a mentorship program to ensure our brothers feel comfortable having Mr. Benjamin-like figures in our lives but also becoming the best versions of ourselves. Sincerely and with the utmost respect, thanks to Mr. Benjamin.