Citation of Merit Award Speech – Bruce Benton ’64

Emeriti Club Gathering and Awards Program
Kalamazoo College
Bruce Benton ’64
October 22, 2022

Thank you, Bill (William Barrett, Class of 1966) for your kind and generous introduction. I’m honored, Donna, (Donna Lambert ’64, Pres., Emeriti Club Leadership Council) to receive this Citation. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had a fulfilling career in what I term “compassionate development.” And, it all began here because K College empowered me to go out into the world and make a difference.

For background, I grew up the only child of a devoted but struggling single mother. My father died tragically when I was five from an allergic reaction to penicillin, after returning from World War II in Europe. His untimely death presented major challenges for me and my mother. Fortunately, both of my parents were well-educated and valued higher education, including their own experiences at nurturing, small colleges. There was never any doubt I would go to college despite an abysmal high school education. My mother and I lived in a low-income area of Columbus, Ohio where college preparation was not a priority in the public schools.

Once at K, it became a painful struggle to keep my head above water. I later learned of correspondence between my mother and my advisor, Richard Stavig, questioning whether the constant study grind required was worth the cost. But, though miserable, I was determined to succeed.

Everything shifted end of my sophomore year with the pioneering K Plan. It was a bold and risky proposition to send nearly the entire junior class abroad, including a contingent to Sierra Leone a year after independence. But it worked.

In September 1962, I boarded the SS Groote Beer with K classmates for Europe – and on to Aix-en-Provence for two quarters. That experience opened up exciting new vistas for me – culture, language, European history, and international politics. I liken it to a mid-course shift from dreary black-and-white to vivid technicolor.

A vital part of my K education was up-close exposure to wider-world issues. The Cuban missile crisis became the focus of concern after I arrived in France. Later, three of us crossed into East Berlin through the Berlin wall, with some trepidation, shortly after it was built. The tragic JFK assassination occurred upon returning to campus. Immediately, several of us drove from K to DC to participate in three days of national mourning – a powerful, somber journey I’ll never forget. Because of foreign-study I was able to appreciate the global importance of these events.

The Kennedy presidency bracketed my K years. Two themes captured my imagination – the new frontier and the pledge to assist the world’s poor. So, after graduation I joined the Peace Corps to teach in Francophone West Africa. I saw it as an exciting adventure and opportunity to pursue interests in international relations and in Africa in its strive for development.

That two-year stint in Guinea, followed by graduate degrees in international studies and development economics, set the stage for a fulfilling 23-year career at the World Bank leading the effort to eliminate onchocerciasis, or riverblindness, throughout Africa. It became my dream job meeting all my criteria for impactful, compassionate development. It entailed controlling a highly disabling disease impacting 150 million of Africa’s poorest citizens living in remote, rural areas. I particularly prized alleviating widespread suffering, increasing human productivity, and freeing up vast areas of once disease-infested land for food production. None of this would have been possible without the fabulous support of my wife, Patricia Benton, sitting here in front, and our four children.

After retirement, I felt an obligation to write a book telling this story. The program had become a major success in global health with important lessons for improving an array of other disease-control efforts.

I reflect often on how fortunate I’ve been in my career that began here. Hence, I wanted to launch the Richard Stavig Endowment for Foreign Study in 2014 to enable disadvantaged K students to benefit from study abroad, as I did 60 years ago.

Thank you. It’s an honor to be recognized by the Emeriti Club Leadership Council. I remain forever grateful to K College and its contribution to the world.