DORIS BENJAMIN, 1939-2016
For those of you who may think that I’ve written the 2,000-odd Chronicles that have appeared in the Citizen over the past 19 years, alone and unaided, I must confess — yes, for the most part.
But not all of them by any means; in fact, I’ve had some outstanding help in my research from friends, fellow members of the various historical groups to which I belong, and from readers.
Of them all, Doris Benjamin, a member of the pioneering Cobble Hill Dougan clan, has been my most stalwart editorial aide. We met, perhaps 25 years ago, as members of the Cowichan Historical Society where she volunteered, first as a researcher, then, for more than 20 years, as a “greeter” in the gift shop on Thursday afternoons. If you ever visited the museum on a Thursday, it was Doris who welcomed you and answered your questions and made you glad you went. She thrived on this kind of inter-personal networking; so much so that, as her health became more of an issue and gradually deprived her of many of her other social outlets, she came to look upon Thursday as the highlight of her week.
It showed in the way she dealt with museum visitors, some of whom became her friends. It broke her heart when she could no longer serve the museum in this capacity.
Although a Dougan, she was born in San Bernardino, Calif. on Jan. 27, 1939, but she and older sister Anne spent most of their growing-up years in nearby Loma Linda. Their father died when Doris was just two. While their mother worked as a nurse, grandmother Annie Dougan “gave up her home and family on the Island” to care for them.
Doris graduated from Pacific Union College in Angwin, Calif. in 1961 then moved to Napa to start an interior design business. In 1966 she began teaching fourth grade in Napa then moved to Portland, Ore. in the early ’70s to continue teaching. By the mid or late ‘70s she was teaching eighth grade (or perhaps junior high; there’s some confusion in the family here) in Battle Creek, Mich.
It was about 1992 that she moved to Maple Bay to care for her mother and she taught for three more years before retiring after a total of 29 years of teaching. It’s a measure of Doris that she remained in contact with some of her students all through the years and never lost interest in them as they grew up, married, had children, then grandchildren. Once in Duncan she joined the Seventh Day Adventist Church (she wrote the bulletin to the end), the Garden Club and the Cowichan Historical and Heritage societies.
She continued to indulge her lifelong passions for sewing and Cowichan history, the latter, perhaps, a genetic hand-me-down from having been born into one of the Valley’s most historic families.
I met Doris, as noted, at the historical society. We became not just friends but co-workers in researching, writing and publishing a succession of brochures for the annual Cowichan Heritage House Tours, and numerous other projects. Her most significant contribution to my own writing program was the help — hundreds of hours and her own gas — in going to Nanaimo weekly to access the microfilmed copies of the Nanaimo Free Press. I paid for the photocopying but Doris covered all other expenses herself for over a year and I’ve been forever grateful as it would have been all but impossible for me to have written, for 10 years, a weekly Nanaimo history column without her invaluable assistance.
Some years ago Doris self-published a history of the Dougan family cemetery in Cobble Hill and, more recently, was working on a re-write of Nathan and Bob Dougan’s classic Cowichan My Valley. Highly regarded and highly collectible, it’s been out of print for 30 years or more. If ever revised and reissued, it would be our best Cowichan Valley history book bar none, based as it is upon Nathan Dougan’s firsthand memories of growing up in the Valley and his acquaintanceship with many of the pioneers of whom he wrote.
Well, that task remains undone. Doris Benjamin passed away suddenly last week. Her friends, those who were blessed to know the real Doris of the big and warm heart, will miss her. I certainly will. I consider myself privileged to have been her friend and I consider myself privileged to be able to use my forum in the Citizen to honour her.
Thank you again, Doris, and bless you. I’ll see you later.