TC Mourns Trustee James Benkard
Published in TC People
By Joe Levine
James Benkard, a Teachers College Trustee since 1980 and the College’s current longest-serving board member, has passed away at age 77.
“Jim Benkard has been an invaluable presence on our board and in the life of Teachers College for the last 34 years, and a source of wise counsel to me personally,” said TC President Susan Fuhrman. “His intelligence, wit, independence and dedication will be greatly missed by the entire TC community.”
As a senior partner of the New York City law firm of Davis, Polk & Wardwell, Benkard represented large corporations and securities firms and was a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers. He also served as a Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services and did extensive pro bono work on behalf of inmates on death row. Benkard’s successful representation of Joseph James in 1975 was a key factor in New York State’s ultimate elimination of the death penalty. The James trial was Benkard’s first capital case.
At TC, the elegant, silver-haired Benkard served on the board’s Business & Finance Committee, Executive Committee and Compensation Committee, which he most recently chaired, and played a key role in each of TC’s two previous major fundraising campaigns. He also participated in the presidential searches at TC that led to the appointments of Arthur Levine and Susan Fuhrman.
“When Jim was invited to become a TC Trustee, he initially thought he was joining Columbia University's board,” recalled Levine. “He came to his first meeting and realized he'd made a gross error, but fell in love with the place and stayed for 34 years.”
In fact, Benkard later recruited others to the board – including current Co-chair Jack Hyland.
“Many years ago, Jimmy said to me, ‘Jack, do you believe in education?’” Hyland recounted. “Having three children then in school -- two of whom would go on to earn master’s degrees and one a PhD -- I replied, ‘Yes, Jimmy, I do believe in education.’
“Then, he said, looking at me with a gimlet eye, ‘Why aren’t you on the board of trustees of Teachers College?’
“’I don’t know,’ I said. Jimmy said, ‘You won’t regret it.’
“Jimmy Benkard could not be stopped, and the next thing I knew was that I was called by the TC Committee on Trustees. That was in 1988, 26 years ago, and he was right, I haven’t regretted it, not one minute.”
Benkard was well known for his sly sense of humor, which led him to be frequently tapped as a master of ceremonies at events at Davis Polk and TC. He was also widely respected for his keen scrutiny of ideas and proposals brought before the board.
“I served on two boards with Jim, for the Environmental Defense Fund and Teachers College,” said TC Trustee E. John Rosenwald Jr. “When he chaired a committee and gave a committee report, it was always a brilliant combination of specificity and cogency, with a generous dose of good humor. He had the approach of a brilliant litigator, and his unasked-for comments from the floor were always pointed and pertinent. He didn’t wait to raise his hand – you’d hear his comments offered up from his seat – but everyone always paid attention to what he said. TC is a better place because he walked its halls.”
Rosenwald recalled that his own grandson interviewed with Benkard at Davis Polk after graduating from NYU Law School. “Max called me afterward to tell me that his meeting with Jim was among the most interesting and joyous conversations he’d ever had as a lawyer.”
James W.B. Benkard was born in New York City, attended St. Bernard’s School in Manhattan, St. Mark’s School in Massachusetts and Harvard University, where he wrote on sports and academic issues for The Harvard Crimson. After college, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps and earned his law degree at Columbia Law School.
Last year, when the New York City Bar Association’s Capital Punishment Committee honored Benkard with its Norman Redlich Capital Defense Pro Bono Award, City Bar President Carey R. Dunne recounted Benkard’s role in the Joseph James case and also his representation in Tennessee of Timothy McKinney’s death sentence appeal in the murder of an off-duty police officer. Benkard showed that eyewitness testimony cited by the prosecution was unreliable. Benkard’s oral argument led the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals to vacate the capital murder conviction of McKinney and order a new trial. The decision was one of the few in recent decades in which a Tennessee court has vacated a conviction and ordered a new trial in a capital murder case based on ineffective assistance of counsel.
“[Benkard’s] efforts and dedication in helping capital defendants desperately in need of representation are very much in the spirit of Norman Redlich,” said Dunne. (Redlich, who died in 2011, pioneered the pro bono defense of indigent death row inmates.)
Benkard was also a trustee of Vassar College, Scenic America and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in New York City. As chair of EDF’s Litigation Review Committee, he briefly found himself in the national spotlight during the presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush.
As reported in a New York Times column by Anthony Lewis, in 1991, Bush administration officials contacted Benkard about becoming assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. He seemed a sure bet to win the job, but then the conservative Washington Legal Foundation signaled its opposition because Benkard had approved an EDF brief supporting an appeal of a judgment ordering the Army Corps of Engineers to pay a development company $2.68 million for forbidding it to fill in wetlands it owned.
"I wasn't concerned about being attacked as a liberal," said Benkard, a Bush supporter who considered himself a moderate Republican. He predicted that if the administration continued to bow to pressures from the far right, it would alienate other Republican moderates – a forecast that proved correct in the 1992 election.
Benkard is survived by his wife of 49 years, Margaret (Peggy) Walker Spofford Benkard; their three children, Andrew Benkard, James Benkard and Margaret Benkard Chaves; and six grandchildren, Penelope, Dexter and Oscar Benkard, Evelyn Benkard Gaumnitz, and Margaret and Nathaniel Chaves. He is also survived by his sister, Joan Derby Benkard Jackson.