Published by The Washington Post from Oct. 4 to Oct. 8, 2023.
John F. Benton Executive, Smithsonian Institution
October 24, 1950 – September 19, 2023
Unexpectedly, with his husband and life partner, David Briggs, at his side, John passed away after a short illness at VHC Health in Arlington, Virginia.
They had been longtime residents of Arlington and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
Which John Benton did you know?
Perhaps you knew John as the man who capped his career with a 20-year stint at one of the world’s largest and most respected cultural institutions.
After holding increasingly senior positions in public service in Washington, DC, he found what he would later describe as his “dream job” working for the Smithsonian Institution. In 2001, after a short detail to the Office of the Director, he became Associate Director for Management and Public Programs at the National Air and Space Museum. For 12 years, John performed so admirably that, shortly after he retired in 2013, the Smithsonian asked him to return to active duty in high-level positions four times, including as Deputy Undersecretary for Finance and Administration for the Institution.
Perhaps you knew John as the debonaire driver who piloted his imposing, prize-winning 1971 Pontiac Bonneville convertible through the streets of Rehoboth Beach and environs.
John loved cars, particularly this one, his cherished “Miss Dorothy.” A deep green, she was housed in their garage with only a few inches to spare. Spotless and shining, this pampered beauty would cruise around at a stately, but impressive pace to thumbs-up and cheers from pedestrians, bicyclists, and other motorists alike.
Perhaps you knew John as a loyal Spider.
He was a proud University of Richmond alum who never tired of promoting and supporting his beloved alma mater. Only recently he had been elected to join the University’s Alumni Board and served as co-chair of his 50th Anniversary Reunion Committee, helping to raise more than $2.0 million for the University.
Perhaps you knew John as a Virginia gentleman.
Kind and courtly, he acted with grace and flawless manners. His fine sense of humor showed in the frequent twinkle in his eye. He spoke with a soft Richmond lilt that could conceal a will of steel. No matter the occasion, he would send handwritten letters of thanks, congratulations, and condolence penned in his own unique and charming calligraphy.
Perhaps you knew John as a fellow leader or board member.
Over the years, John devoted himself to furthering the work of the Arlington Community Foundation, the Science Museum of Virginia, the Arlington Free Clinic, Signature Theatre, the Arlington Commission for the Arts, and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, as well as many more community and arts organizations.
Perhaps you knew John as a man who loved music.
John enjoyed both listening to and making choral and organ music. He loved to sing and did so with many groups including on tours in England, Australia, and New Zealand. A fervent pipe organ enthusiast, he relished every concert within his reach, and having all the stops of an organ pulled on so he could absorb its sound.
Perhaps you knew John as a man who warmly welcomed family and friends into his life.
John connected with people, whether over a dinner table, over a board table, or over a cool drink in a theater lobby. Once he made a connection, he kept you in mind and in his life, helping to connect you with others. With family and friends alike, those connections remained strong across distances and years. John treasured his many friends, celebrating their lives generously and with style.
Which leads to this: If you knew John, you know he never did anything halfway. He poured his energy and heart into striving for perfection in any endeavor, be it managing an illustrious institution or remembering your birthday.
John is survived by his loving husband, David. They had been together for 45 years, ten of those as a married couple. He is also survived by his uncle, Terry Turner, of Dinwiddie, Virginia; his niece, Vicky Bright, of Enid, Oklahoma; David’s sister, Elaine Briggs (Carol Sheehan), of Bentonville, Arkansas, and David’s brother, Corey Briggs (Donna), of Quincy, Massachusetts, in addition to many cousins, friends, former colleagues, and community members in Arlington, the greater Washington, DC area, Richmond, and Rehoboth Beach.
Services celebrating John’s life will be held on October 28, 2023, at 2 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Washington, DC, 1328 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC, and on November 11, 2023, at 2 p.m. at River Road Church (Baptist), 8000 River Road, Richmond, VA. His ashes will be interred in River Road’s columbarium.
In lieu of flowers, contributions in John’s memory may be made to the “Benton-Briggs Endowed Fund for the Arts” of The Fund for Arlington Arts at the Arlington Community Foundation. The Fund for Arlington Arts was set up by John and David to support and advance the welfare and missions of the nonprofit arts in Arlington. Donations may be made by mail or through the Fund’s homepage.