May 10, 2009

After turning school around, officer preps for next challenge

By Alvin Benn

MARION -- In 1885, fam ed war correspondent Richard Harding Davis wrote: "The Marines have landed and the situation is well in hand."

Retired Marine Col. Jim Benson wasn't thinking of Davis or the reporter's famous phrase when he landed in this tiny Alabama town five years ago, but he easily could see that a more benign "invasion" was needed.

Instead of storming a beachhead or dropping into a jungle clearing, Benson devised a plan to save Marion Military Institute which, at the time, appeared to be on academic and financial life support.

Roofs were leaking across campus, enrollment continued to drop, the faculty needed help and, most importantly, funds had to be found to keep the school from possible collapse.

"Some basic maintenance improvements had been deferred for 25 years," Benson said a few days ago as he relaxed in his office at a school founded in 1842. "We had been in the red for six years when I came here."

A combat veteran of Vietnam with a chest full of medals, including two Bronze Stars, Benson had been vice president of a college in Virginia, but he yearned to be a president.

He applied for the MMI presidency in 2000 and was a finalist, but lost out to a Medal of Honor recipient. Four years later, the job became available again, but somebody forgot to tell Benson and he thought it was too late to apply.

But, he had made such a favorable impression in 2000 that he quickly was added to the list of applicants. It didn't take long for him to be selected.

Once Benson and his wife, Mary, arrived on campus, he began to pump new life into a school he felt "needed to be to Alabama what the Citadel is to South Carolina."

Hundreds of generals and admirals have attended MMI through the years, including Colin Kelley, who is credited with being the first American hero of World War II.