Forum in Rome

Goodbye Dr Jim

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“Benefield, Dr James Joseph (Jim) —

Sadly passed away in Paris, France on Tuesday 11 October 2011. In his 74th year. Loved son of the late Cyril and Mary. Loved brother of Anthony (Auckland).  Messages to c/- MSA Club, 231 Burnett Street, Ashburton.”

And with that simple obituary the man that inspired me to travel passed into history last week.

I grew up in Ashburton, New Zealand.  It’s a small rural town in a small rural country at the bottom of the world, and comes with all of the diversity of thought, culture and history that such a location suggests.

Not much.

If you didn’t play rugby or wear the latest in faux-rural chic, you were never going to be part of the in-crowd.  There wasn’t a great deal of room for independent thought in my little town, and that was just the way most of the residents liked it.

Most of the residents, that is, except Dr Jim.

With an unruly mane of silver hair and a moustache that had developed a life of its own, there wasn’t much that was polished about the man.  When he wandered into the classroom, always a little late and often a little dishevelled, you never quite knew what you were in store for.  His stained brown corduroy trousers and floppy cardigans were never going to set the catwalks of Milan alight, and Hugo Boss was unlikely to beat down the door offering to bottle his faint scent of mothballs and whiskey any time soon.

Once he started talking about the great cities of Europe, however, absolutely none of that mattered.

I never knew what random set of circumstances found – or kept – Dr Jim in Ashburton.  He didn’t belong there.  A rickety garret in Montmarte or a back street pensione in Rome would have suited the man far better.  His passion for the Old World was plain for all to see, and every summer the small savings from his teacher’s salary were spent making the lengthy journey to the other side of the world.  The fact that he died in Paris, a city he loved, is the most fitting testament I can imagine.

I wasn’t an easy student.  Quickly bored with subjects that didn’t interest me, I was more inclined to ‘forget’ to turn up to class than knuckle down to another thrilling calculus lesson.  Missing Classical Studies, however?  I would have had to be damn near dead.

For those few insufficient hours per week Ancient Greece and Rome walked in through the classroom door.  The tales of luxury and corruption, great monuments and the battles that inspired them, playwrights, poets, artists and philosophers that rung out in that classroom literally couldn’t have been further from the life I had grown up with.

I was transfixed.  More than that, I was inspired.

Somewhere in the two years that I immersed myself in Dr Jim’s encyclopaedic knowledge and meandering tales, I came to the realisation that merely reading the histories and looking at old photos were not going to be enough.  I was going to have to see the places that he talked about for myself.

I was going to have to travel.

Trajan's column

And sure enough, travel I did.  Standing in the dust near the Forum in Rome a few years later, I squinted into the sunlight and smiled.  Turning to my then-girlfriend, I pointed out a tall column maybe 100m away that was carved from top to bottom in intricate detail.

“That’s Trajan’s Column“, I said.  And indeed it was, standing there proudly commemorating the victories of the Emperor Trajan over the Dacians for nearly two thousand years.

When the inevitable question of how on earth I happened to know that was asked, the answer was simple.

“I learnt about it from Dr Jim.”

Traipsing all over that Forum – and all over the rest of Rome in the following days – I could hear the old man’s voice ringing in my head.  The dull old history text books had been bought to life by the passion of his teaching, and wandering the streets of that ancient city completed the journey that had begun for me in a stuffy wooden classroom half a decade earlier.

While visiting my family in New Zealand a few years later I happened to find myself back walking through my old school.  On a whim I wandered into the staff room to see who might be around, and sure enough Dr Jim was there nursing a cup of tea.  A little older, a little slower and with hair a little whiter, he nonetheless recognised me and we spent a few minutes chatting.

As I recounted the story of my time in Rome, and how I stood in the beating sun for ages gazing at that emperor’s monument to himself, I was surprised to see tears forming in the corner of my old teacher’s eye.

Wiping them away, he stood up, put one hand on my shoulder and shook my hand.

“Thank you”, he gruffly said.

“Thank you”.

It has occurred to me several times since that if the thanks should have come from anyone, they should have come from me.  Inspiring somebody to travel, to explore, to seek out something bigger and better, is one of the greatest gifts that anybody can give.

He had given it to me.

Rest in peace, Dr Jim.

[Forum image via Benson Kua, Trajan’s Column image via gregw66]

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  1. Hi David – That is an inspired article about the most unlikely of teachers. Any teacher who has inspired pupils in the way he did has to have reached the ultimate. Nothing more needs to be said.

  2. You never know who you are inspiring along the way. It’s nice that he was able to see that he helped you connect to the history of the world and the wonder of travel. Have no doubt that you inspire others in turn.

  3. It’s crazy how one person really can make such a big difference in your life–surely he would be thrilled to know what a positive change he made on your life. Beautiful tribute.

  4. Hi Dave – I remember you from Ashburton College! Great to see Dr Jim meant something to someone else too. I still chatted to him whenever I saw him up the street and he was always delightful. Take care in your travels

  5. Thank you Dave, for celebrating this wonderful man and his love of teaching and travel, and sharing this story with us.

    Teachers exist in a world of little thanks, and he would have been thoroughly delighted to hear of your exploits.

  6. I had the pleasure of working with Dr Jim he was a generous, warm and incredibly erudite man. I am so sorry he has left us but so pleased he died in one of his favourite places.

  7. Well Kiwi, I know one person you’ve inspired 😉 What a beautiful obit. I wish I’d had a teacher like that.

  8. Nicely said, Dave. Dr B was also my classics teacher and I always remember the intricate maps he drew on the blackboard with his various coloured chalk. Two years in the classroom with him also inspired my travels to France, Italy and Greece, and I remember standing looking at the massive columns, forums, temples etc in the flesh and thinking of sixth and seventh form classics with Dr B. Very sad he has died.

  9. I also had the pleasure of being taught by Dr Jim just over 20 years ago. He was my inspiration for learning linguistics and am now teaching ESOL and English. I loved my 4 years of French with him, and couldn’t wait to get to French speaking places. And then there was Classical Studies. What a magnificent teacher! I was privileged to have Dr Jim as a colleague as well, when I returned to teach at Ash College not that long ago. It truly was a privilege to see him again. Back when I was a student, Dr Jim would tell us about his trips to Paris and the rest of France. I loved every word of it. And the French songs we would sing as they played on his old portable record player. Thank you, Dave, for writing your tribute to Dr Jim.

  10. Although Dr Jim had not taught at the college for a long time he, until recently (because of a move across town) he frequented the staff room every morning for a chat, a cup of tea and a trip to the library, to find a book for his other great passion of Art History and the evening class he taught (until its demise because the funding was stopped: thanks N.Z government). He helped me many times with resources for my Art History class and we would often chat and have a laugh about various states of affair or art works. I would often laugh at his stories of his travels and him being removed from galleries because he would let his inquisitiveness get the better of him and get maybe just that little too close. I would also laugh at some of his stories of art works even though he would have lost me half way through with his amazing wealth of knowledge, I would pretend that I still knew what he was talking about! He covered for me a few years back when I went away and when I came back my students wanted to know” who was that man”, they loved him! I will miss that guttural chuckle; I will miss his help, his knowledge, I will miss him.

  11. What a lovely tribute. A good teacher can have a such an impact on a student. I’m sure you’ll inspire someone to travel the way Dr. Jim inspired you to travel.

  12. Well, I can only agree with these comments. I was Associate Principal at Ashcoll in the late 80s early 90s, and I had a particular soft spot for Dr Jim. Perhaps because I also had done French in my degree, we shared a few laughs with the language from time to time. Jim was always a delight – learned, clever, and somewhat eccentric – but a gentle, warm and memorable personality. I saw him just a few weeks ago at Chris Buckland’s farewell – I’m pleased I took the time to talk.A lovely, lovely man.

  13. Those who can inspire others in any aspect of life are truly some of the world’s great treasures.
    He was a character and incredibly knowledgeable – I recall you poring over maps of the travel of Alexander the Great after your classical study class!
    Good that you had Dr Jim in your life, David.

  14. Enjoyed your post. Will miss Dr Jim coming in to see me in the library and hearing about his latest travels or helping him to book his accommodation for the next trip. Enjoyed helping him purchase his slides to add to his vast collection. Fun to see him mastering the internet.
    What a fitting place to die – in his beloved Paris.

  15. Dr Jim was my first teacher I had when I started Ashburton College. I always remember his sly intellectual jokes, which not everybody got. It was later in years that I found an interest in Art History, and went along to Jim’s classes at the menorlue. Over the past 10 years since finishing school, I caught up with Jim often, whether talking to him up town or taking him to the airport on the odd occasion. The numerous stories he told me about his trips, his past and his not so trusting Hillman Avenger. It was a privilege to know such a unique man as Jim. I, as will a lot of others, miss him a great deal.
    Requiescat in pace

  16. Thank you so much to everyone that has taken the time to stop by and leave their memories of Dr Jim here on the blog, or privately by email. I certainly didn’t expect quite the response that this post has got, but in retrospect I should have know that a man such as he has inspired many.

    I’m both happy and humbled that the Ashburton Guardian saw fit to republish this post in its entirety (plus several of your comments) as an obituary to Dr Jim in today’s paper – a scanned copy is at


  17. Really beautiful.. love your humour too Dave (about your rural town).. but this was a very inspiring piece.. Nice nice nice 🙂

  18. Hi Dave, Awesome obit, he was a truly great man. I shed a tear as I read it. I too was a student at Ash Col and did 2 years of Classical studies, he too inspired me to travel and there has been many a time Dr B has come up in conversation over the years. I will never forget him madly writing latin up on the blackboard and then being totally disgusted that we couldn’t read it!!!!!! I had considered taking Classical studies at uni but had the feeling that no one could live up to Dr B’s passion and teaching style, so very unique. I feel very sad he has passed away but pleased he was in a country he loved, I wish I knew more about him. I still feel guilty that I didn’t do as well in my bursary exam as he had hoped I would, sorry Dr B it was not a reflection on your teaching. RIP

  19. Dave. Well done. I often think back to so many of the amazing teachers I had at good old ash Coll
    At the time I never realised how special that band were in shaping who I am now.
    Dr Jim certainly stood out as the characher in R block.

  20. Hi Dave. I loved your piece about Dr Jim. I too have very fond memories of him and the art history night classes I went to. He was a lovely man, warm and generous and with the most amazing knowledge of art history and the classics. I particularly loved his sense of humour and the little anecdotes he would tell about the various artists he was discussing. He also had a great gift for instilling his passion for his subject in his students. I think that will be his great legacy. How appropriate that he spent his final days in Paris, the city that was home to all the art treasures he so dearly cherished.
    Rest in Peace Dr Jim.

  21. Hi Dave,

    So wrapped that you took it up to write about Dr. Benefield. Wish he could have known how much he had touched so many peoples lives in such wonderful ways. He was truly inspirational and I like many others will always remember him as one of the special teachers, one that was genuinely passionate about his subject and about sharing his experiences with the pupils that showed an interest. When my friend Trisha Summerfield and I would be back in town we used to go and visit him when he lived in Tinwald, have a cup of tea and share all our latest travel stories with him. He was truly a delight in a cultural abyss. He will always be fondly remembered as one of the truly wonderful ones that always seemed to be giving rather that taking. Forever at Peace now.

  22. Hi Dave,
    I am very grateful and fortunate to have had Dr B as both my form teacher and classics teacher, his passion and knowledge was infectious, and he undoubtedly inspired many people to travel and experience life. He certainly entered my thoughts often as I visited the many places he had talked about and I felt privileged that I had such a wealth of information about these places. I feel very fortunate to have had the luxury of his shared knowledge. I am so glad to know many of his students were able to share their travel tales with him and that he had been in our thoughts and inspired us to visit so many places. You have written a fitting tribute to a man we were all very blessed to have had in our lives.

  23. Fantastic tribute to Dr Jim. I think a lot of people never truly appreciated what an amazing person and teacher he was. I vividly remember coming home from Europe and telling my Mum and Dad how I had Dr Jim’s voice in my head when I saw so many of the amazing things he had taught me about in Classics. His knowledge and the passion he showed for an “unfashionable” subject will be missed.

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  25. My high school classical studies teacher inspired me to travel too. I had a similar experience in Rome, pointing out to my boyfriend all the monuments we’d had to learn for the 7th form syllabus. My high school German teacher also influenced my passion for travel and teaching, with stories of travelling and living abroad. I have just discovered your blog and love it already!

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