Selma residents share memories of legendary journalist

Published 8:56 am Monday, October 16, 2023

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Alvin Benn always had a unique approach to his nearly 40-year illustrious career as an award-winning journalist, a career that included two years at The Selma Times-Journal.

Benn, who lived in Selma for over two decades, died Tuesday night after a long illness at the age of 83. Called “Al” by colleagues and friends, Benn worked at The Selma Times-Journal in 1979 and 1980.

Benn’s son, Eric Benn, released a statement and said his father was a man who loved family, friends, Jewish faith, and journalism.

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“He dedicated his entire adult life to reporting the news, good and bad,” Eric Benn said. “From covering civil rights in the ’60s to being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, to interviewing presidents, to covering day-to-day life in the South, to writing a book, etc. He loved nothing more than the State of Alabama and especially his hometown, Selma. Though gone, he will never be forgotten.”

Countless Selma residents shared their memories of Benn, whose wife, Sharon, and their two children, lived in the area for decades. Sharon Benn died Aug. 23, 2020, and is buried in Selma.

Jamie Wallace, a former Editor of The Selma-Journal who later became President of the Selma-Dallas County Chamber of Commerce, said his path crossed with Benn whem it came to covering news stories in the community. At the time he was working at the Montgomery Advertiser.
“We tipped each other on stories that the other did not know about,” Wallace said. “At the time, nobody knew that. Some people would’ve called that unethical. Al was one of the most, honest, straightforward journalists I ever knew. If a story was written by Al, it was the real deal. He knew how to ask the tough questions. He knew how to produce a lot of copy, more than anybody, other than me. The Selma Times-Journal came out six days a week in those days. I wrote everything from editorial to obituary. Al was a family man, who dearly loved his wife, children, and grandchildren. And they loved him. He had a passion for people and did not try to run a popularity contest.”

Former Selma City Councilman Tom Headley recalls a conversation between Benn and longtime Selma Mayor Joe Smitherman.

“One morning Al and Mayor Smitherman were on the front steps of City Hall,” Headley said. “Al was pressing the Mayor to comment about the smell coming from Hammer Mill. The mayor said ‘It smells like money to me.’ With that, Al walked off.

“Al was very likable and always carried a big smile. Al would press for a story but knew the boundaries. He would never accuse anyone of anything unless they admitted to it.”

Selma-Dallas County Public Library Executive Director Becky Nichols said that Benn will always be remembered for his journalistic integrity, even as West Alabama Bureau Chief with an office in Selma.

“Al was a great believer in Selma and Dallas County,” Nichols said. “He wrote fairly and always with the intent always of telling the truth. He had a humor and wisdom that gave him a unique edge in journalism- a voice that will be missed.”

Dallas County Commissioner Jan Justice said she worked with Benn during his brief stint at the Times-Journal.

“Alvin Benn was a great guy,” Justice said, “I always loved reading his articles,” Justice said.

Ronnie Leet, President of Congregation Mishkan Israel, called Benn a great storyteller.

“Al Benn was a true professional serving his reporting profession and his country with honor as a Marine,” Leet said. “He loved his family as he loved his Jewish religion. Al and his wife Sharon were active as a member of Temple Mishkan Israel-Selma Temple Beth of Montgomery.

“His newspaper reporting was based on fact, very thorough, and very professional. He was always concerned about the well-being of his Temple family and friends, a true gentleman.”

Benn, served six years in the Marine Corps, and was also known for hanging out at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  He became friends with Stephen Posey, Dusty Brown, and Don King, all St. Paul members.

“I had the good fortune to know Al in the last decade of his life,” Posey said. “I met him at St. Paul’s where he and his wife Sharon often joined us for breakfast.  I thoroughly enjoyed his story-telling and frequent laughs, which I heard more and more of after he and his wife began inviting me over to their house for dinner and a movie.

“Even in retirement, he was interested in people’s stories, and I frequently saw him in the library deep in conversation with someone he was interviewing. His energy and good humor were always admirable.”

Don King said many evenings were spent with Benn, who wrote a book, “Covering Civil Rights…and Wrongs in Dixie.”

“Al went to breakfast at our church and we spent many an evening together at Al and Sharon’s house eating and watching TV,” King said.

Edie Jones, a former Director of Tourism and Film Liaison for the Selma-Dallas County Chamber of Commerce, said she and Benn were friends for years.

“Al Benn was a true friend to Selma and my dear personal friend,” Jones said. “Al also loved his Jewish faith, his family and his work as a reporter. He was the hardest-working man who was always writing articles. Al’s sense of humor was unparalleled. He’s probably looking down on you smiling.”

Dr. Boyd Bailey of UAB Selma Medicine said Benn’s reporting always carried respect throughout the area. Benn was a former patient of Bailey at Vaughan Regional Medical Center in the 1980’s.

“Al Benn was a smart reporter who always looked to write stories about the community,” Bailey said.

Attorney Jay Minter of Minter Law Firm recalls a story Benn covered as a free lance writer.

“I do remember the time he was freelancing and one of his gigs was doing stories for the Alabama Farmers’ Cooperative monthly newspaper,” Minter said. “He was doing a story on me in December and needed to get some photos of the kids and I on short notice.

“It was a cold, wet miserable day and the kids were young and cuddling up to me as hard as they could as Al had us standing out in the elements in front of a pasture. But he turned out a great story on us. All in all, just a heck of a nice, warm guy who never let his niceness shy away from his journalistic principles of honesty and integrity and honesty.”