Writing

February 6, 1995

There's more to life than a New York Times obituary

By Alison Stuebe

I don't think I would have cared about getting eliminated from the Rhodes Scholarship competition if I had known that was the last day I'd see Nic Benjamin alive.

It was almost a coincidence that I saw him at all--I was home for the state round of the Rhodes, my interview was three blocks from where my parents were meeting him for lunch and I figured, almost on a whim, that I might as well stop by. So I walked over with my mom, exchanged hugs with Nic, his wife Judy and his parents, and gave a nervous run-down of my interview. Nic was, as always, in good spirits, cracking jokes and wishing me luck. I was probably there less than 15 minutes.

The Rhodes competition has this sadistic element in that they tell you the same day whether or not you make the cut. The 12 of us, (or was it 14?), sat nervously in a corporate law office board room that afternoon, until the panel came in and read off the names. We non-finalists all kind of smiled weakly and slunk out to the elevators. I was duly devastated, but also strangely embarrassed that I cared.

Eight days later, I came home from an obscure conversation with an old friend to discover my parents and little brother wide awake at 12:33 a.m. I heard them coming down the hall from the kitchen, and there was this note on the front hall table about Nic, a hospital, calling someone. I couldn't decipher my brother's distinctly male-14-year-old handwriting before my mother said, "Nic had another heart attack."

"Oh my God..."

"It's worse," she said. "He's dead."

I've known the Benjamins for 17 years--since Judy was pregnant with their daughter Laura, who's now a senior in high school, and I was four and a half. The Benjamin family spent their summers down the street from my family in Long Island, and I grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons with Laura's two older brothers.

In all our family gatherings, Nic was the center of the excitement. He led countless water ski expeditions, starred in neighborhood dramatic productions and permeated every event with his wry sense of humor. I can vividly remember the afternoon he and I got stranded on an intermediate trail far too difficult for my fourth-day-ever on skis. I was sprawled across a mogul, prepared to collect my scattered skis and poles and hike the rest of the way. With a combination of fatherly affection and raucous humor, Nic coaxed me back onto my feet and down to the bottom, caked with ice and bruised, but laughing.

He taught me to snow ski, taught me to water ski, and even installed the basketball hoop on the back of our garage, launching my career as an All Star in my not-quite-Division-I-recruiting-material high school basketball league.

The night he died, I had been at the top of the Empire State Building with a friend who graduated from Duke last year. We were talking about what we wanted to do with our lives, and I remember saying the thing I hate about New York is that it's so hard to do anything that matters--in a city of 8 million, how can one person accomplish anything important? And as much as I salivate at the idea of writing for The New York Times, I wondered what it would be like to work for a newspaper where most of what mattered to readers never got published.

"Anything could be happening down there," I remember saying. "And we'll never even hear about it."

Less than a mile north of us, my mom was standing outside St. Claire's hospital, waiting to tell Judy that her husband was dead.

I gave a eulogy at Nic's funeral, and as I spoke and listened to the other people who had known him, I realized that he had never won a Rhodes Scholarship. He had never been president, appeared on national television or, as he once quipped, climbed the highest mountain on Long Island. The New York Times didn't deign to print his obituary, which I got to write, as I was the journalist-in-residence the morning after he died. But here was a person who was more of who I want to be than any title I can name or honor I can fathom.

Being a senior carries with it the ubiquitous question of "What are you going to do next year?" I used to worry about it a lot. I worried not only about what I wanted to do, but what people might think about my answer. I was afraid to admit that I don't know what I want to do with my life, or what my Ultimate Career Goal will be.

But I don't think it matters. Because I do know who I want to be. I only wish I hadn't had to bury him in December of my senior year in college.

Alison Stuebe is a Trinity senior and editor of The Chronicle.


This article was published on February 6, 1995
Copyright © 1995, Duke Student Publishing Co., Inc. All rights reserved.
This document may be distributed electronically, provided it is distributed in its entirety and includes this notice. However, it cannot be reprinted without the express written permission of Duke Student Publishing Co., Inc., Durham, NC

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