The city of Nome confirmed Monday that James “Richard” Beneville, age 75, died overnight from pneumonia at Norton Sound Regional Hospital.
Beneville was elected in 2015 and was in the middle of serving his third term as mayor. He was also president of the Alaska Conference of Mayors.
In the city’s Facebook post, Beneville was remembered for his “colorful personality, passion for the community and love of the arts.”
The mayor had been suffering from a recent bout of pneumonia when he was readmitted to the local hospital. He tested negative for COVID-19 on Friday, according to the Facebook post.
Nome-ites and visitors from around the world will remember the mayor by his iconic phrase, “Hello Central!”
Beneville moved to Nome in 1988. He was first elected mayor in 2015 and was in the midst of serving his third term.
Beneville, a long-time dancer and former Broadway performer, suffered a stroke back in February that prevented him from traveling and advocating for Nome in Washington, D.C., earlier this spring. Despite his health challenges, Beneville did make it to Anchorage for the Iditarod musher’s banquet in March. It was one of his last public events.
Since the stroke a few months ago, Beneville had been battling pneumonia and general fatigue.
Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman said that Beneville was deeply frustrated that illness had begun to slow him down. Steckman remembered the late mayor by saying, “You appreciated his enthusiasm and love for the city of Nome and what the city meant to him, which helped him at some of the darkest times in his life. And he wanted to give back to Nome.”
Beneville was open about many of the joys and struggles in his life. He lived publicly as a gay man and talked openly about overcoming his addiction to alcohol and finding sobriety in Nome.
For years, Beneville made his living as a tour guide with his company Nome Discovery Tours. Like many others, Steckman got his first taste of Nome’s history, culture, and surrounding landscape from one of Beneville’s iconic tours.
“He would get so intent on telling you something, he would wander across the road and you were having to remind him to keep his eyes on the road as he was telling you what he knew about Nome,” said Steckman. “He was just a bundle of energy at that point.”
Generations of Nome-ites also know him as the man who taught theater in schools and brought community productions of musicals like “My Fair Lady” and “South Pacific” to the local stage.
Beneville tried to put the spirit of public service in everything he did.
“I can say in all honesty that I am happy. And it comes down to I have this tremendous pride to live here. I really do. The Far North has given me so much and maybe in my tours I try to, not re-pay, how do you repay a debt like that? You just try to help things along.”-Mayor Richard Beneville, 2015
Beneville is survived by his two nephews and his cat, Ollie. Steckman said memorial services will be planned in accordance with the wishes detailed in the former mayor’s will and social distancing recommendations from the CDC.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy ordered flags to be flown at half-mast on Monday, May 18, in honor of Beneville’s passing.
KOTZ’s Wesley Early contributed to this story