TC mourns Trustee James Benkard
Published in TC Today - Volume 38, No. 1
“He Chaired Committees with the Approach of a Brilliant Litigator”
James Benkard, a TC Trustee since 1980 and the longest-serving member on the College’s current board, passed away in early April 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.
At TC, Benkard served on the board’s Business & Finance Committee, Executive Committee and Compensation Committee, which he most recently chaired, and he 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, now President of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. “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.”
Benkard later recruited current Co-Chair Jack Hyland to TC’s board, promising Hyland, “You won’t regret it.”
“That was in 1988, 26 years ago, and he was right, I haven’t regretted it, not one minute,” Hyland said.
E. John Rosenwald Jr., who served with Benkard both on TC’s board and that of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), said that Benkard — who also was a Trustee of Vassar College —“chaired committees and gave reports with the approach of a brilliant litigator.”
“Everyone always paid attention to what he said,” Rosenwald said. “TC is a better place because he walked its halls.”
Benkard 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. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps and earned his law degree at Columbia Law School. Last year, the New York City Bar Association’s Capital Punishment Committee honored him with its Norman Redlich Capital Defense Pro Bono Award.
As chair of EDF’s Litigation Review Committee, Benkard briefly found himself in the national spotlight during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, when, because of opposition by the conservative Washington Legal Foundation, he was passed over for the job of assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. As reported in a New York Times column by Anthony Lewis, Benkard, a Bush supporter who considered himself a moderate Republican, subsequently 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.
— Joe Levine