South Bend Tribune
South Bend, Indiana
December 29, 2005
Many Thanks to Ida Chipman for graciously allowing us to reproduce this article.

Generations of music

Dick Benefiel helped create strong band tradition at Plymouth High.

Tribune Correspondent

Between them, Ginger and Dick Benefiel have totaled nearly 75 years of teaching and directing music.
Tribune Photo/IDA CHIPMAN

PLYMOUTH -- Dick Benefiel would still be playing musical instruments if he hadn't lost all of his teeth back in the 1980s.

"If you can't bite the mouthpiece and can't feel the pressure," he said, shaking his head, "there is no way you can play."

He could still teach and his ear was as fine-tuned as ever, but he had to hang up his beloved saxophone and clarinet.

Now at age 73 with health issues complicating his life, he enjoys reminiscing about his career in music.

A band director for 31 years, 22 of them in Plymouth, Dick retired in 1990.

When he took over the job from Phil Eherneman who went to Warsaw, there were about 50 band members. When he retired, there were more than 140.

His longtime assistant director, Dale Kokot, said, "Mr. Benefiel is the Big Red Band. The band stands for everything he believes in -- discipline, excellence, trying your best and being fair."

It was a long struggle to get there.

When he was in the fifth grade, Dick's father bought him a second-hand clarinet for $10.

"Ten dollars was all he could afford and the clarinet was in his price range, so that's what I got," Dick said.

Throughout school, he played saxophone and clarinet in his school's band activities. He also had a six-man dance band that traveled around Madison County, and he would occasionally hitchhike to Anderson, Ind., to play in the Eagles Lodge band.

"I was really too young to play in that venue," he said, "but I lied about how old I was. I earned $5 a night and that was good money back then."

After graduation from Alexandria (Ind.) High School with the Class of 1950, Dick went to Butler University for a year and then joined the Air Force.

"It was during the Korean War," he said, "and I was stationed for four years in Wichita Falls, Texas, with the 761st Air Force Band."

Buck Sgt. Benefiel played all over. His Army band was part of Bob Hope's show. They also played for Jimmy Durante and other popular USO performers, as well as touring the country as part of his Air Force duties.

After his honorable discharge in 1955, Dick entered the Indiana University School of Music.

It was there, as a freshman, that he met Virginia "Ginger" Anthrop, a senior music major.

She graduated in 1956, got a job at West School in Plymouth and taught everything musical -- including band and choir -- for grades kindergarten through 12 for a year.

When she returned to Bloomington, the couple were married and Ginger became the music teacher at Needham, Ind.

Her salary, the G.I. Bill and gigs with the Hal Cobine dance band in Monroe County "kept us from starving," Dick said.

He earned his bachelor's degree in music education from I.U. in 1959, and later his master's degree.

For the next five years, Dick taught music at LaPaz High School, followed by two years at LaVille High School.

Paula, their oldest child, had been born in 1961. When she was 5 years old, Dick resigned from LaVille to take the family -- which then included two sons, David and John -- to Colorado to live.

"Paula had severe asthma," Ginger said. "We nearly lost her several times. There was an outstanding asthmatic hospital in Denver and we moved there to save her life."

Dick said, "We took money out of our teacher's retirement fund to have the means to go."

Both Benefiels taught in Colorado. Neither received any longevity pay for their teaching experience in Indiana, and their salaries, before taxes, came to $4,200 apiece.

"After a year and a half, we were flat broke," Dick said. "The doctor's bills were astronomical and we realized that we had to find a way to come home."

Fate, in the guise of Bill Shemberger, intervened. Shemberger, owner of a music store and a good friend, called Dick in Colorado to tell him of a job opening for a band director in Plymouth.

Interviewed in the summer of 1968, Dick was hired on the spot. He rented a home on North Center Street and returned to Colorado to fetch his family.

He taught music and directed bands for grades eight through high school.

Ginger became the music teacher at Jefferson Elementary, the same school where Paula (Neidlinger) -- who outgrew her asthma -- is now the principal.

One highlight was in 1975, when the band went to a band festival in Mexico City. The band members themselves raised $38,000 in the space of a year and a half.

"Every student was required to earn a certain amount," Benefiel said. "And they did. They did everything in the community: raked leaves, baby sat, washed cars, sold chicken. They got it done."

Dick was honored by Governor Otis R. Bowen as an Indiana Ambassador to Mexico in a welcoming home ceremony in Indianapolis.

The young band director inaugurated the first Big Red Variety Show in 1977.

"We didn't have enough band members for the first show, so Jack Peterman's choir filled in."

That was the beginning of a long history of spring musical shows that is still going strong.

Dick also played in a community band with such local musicians as John Wilson, Johnny Keck, Bill Tanner and "Doc" Koontz.

Dick has written countless original pieces for the variety shows and did his own scores for the band, some of which were recorded every year.

He loved his job and working with kids who were talented in the field of music.

In 1986, he was the grand marshal of the Blueberry Parade.

"I rode in a convertible down the parade route," he recalled.

"And when we got to the reviewing stand, I jumped out so as to direct the band in the national anthem

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