My boyhood Parish of St. Benedict’s in Richmond Virginia will be filling up in an hour for Joe Benedetti. I’ve often told people that when I was in high school the Godfather of one of my sister’s decided to run for the State House, my Dad wrote a letter on his behalf, and I went around and knocked on every door I could to hand it out. His election set me on course for four decades of canvassing neighborhoods for candidates and causes in eight states.
That candidate was Joe Benedetti, and I am somewhat nostalgic for the days when someone like him spent decades of serving the community (Knights of Columbus, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, etc.) and then ran for office. In the recent mid-term elections $4 billion was spent, but I was still thankful to have grassroots trump money in a couple of my last elections such as Larry Stutts defeating Senate Minority Leader in Alabama (who ironically was first elected the same year I was knocking on doors for Mr. Benedetti, 1982).
Mr. Benedetti’s love for his community was not just for show. I used to serve 6:45 a.m. Mass at St. Benedicts, and he would be there most days – one of only 6 to 12 on average so hardly a political gathering (I used to count them from the altar to make sure the Priest had enough communion hosts out).
When I returned to Virginia after four years at Marquette I will never forget my call to Mr. Benedetti.
“Mr. Benedetti, I am working at the Charlottesville Daily Progress, but I want to try to get into politics and run campaigns in about 10 years, is there anyone here I should meet?”
Mr. Benedetti: “Have you met George Allen yet?”
Me: “The football coach?”
Mr. Benedetti: “No, his son George Allen moved there to play for UVa, and he pulled a big upset to win a House seat there. The Democrats are really scared of him because we all think he is going places, but I don’t believe they can beat him. You need to go meet him right away, I will give him a call.”
A few weeks later I was working for George Allen, and putting together a press conference for George and Joe Benedetti’s former law partner Jim Gilmore, then Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney.
I know Mr. Benedetti is probably reliving all the ways he changed people’s lives without knowing it – much like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” That one call placed by him resulted in me working for the next two Governor’s of Virginia – Allen and Gilmore.
When he ran for Attorney General he called and asked for my advice in getting into some new areas of the state he didn’t know as well, and he asked if I could see if anyone in the Knights of Columbus could help in Southside Virginia.
“Mr. Benedetti, in Southside Virginia my Catholic friends all go to church Saturday night to make sure noone knows they are Catholic,” I told him.
His wife Peggy passed away shortly thereafter – a wonderful woman and friend of my parents whose cheerfulness even as she visibly struggled through cancer that last year was an inspiration to us all.
At her funeral I was happy that George Allen and many other protestants were going to St. Benedicts to see a Catholic Mass for the first time. It all went well until the sign of peace. Every time someone greeted George with “Peace be with you,” he returned his charming grin and said matter-of-factly, “Peace through Strength!” quoting Ronald Reagan.
The last time I saw Mr. Benedetti was at a fundraiser at one of his son’s house for a very special cause. St. Benedict’s had been very kind to the nine Pudner children – getting us all through school for almost no money while priests were even known to bring a bag of groceries by the house if they found out we were hungry. With nine children of our own it was years before we could contribute anything, but finally I had my chance.
We had one good year, and the first check of any size I wrote was to pay for one child’s tuition at St. Benedict’s – still very reasonably priced. Then a couple of years later one of Mr. Benedetti’s sons called me about a fundraiser the school desperately needed as they stayed committed to staying in the city instead of moving out to the much more affluent suburbs.
Mr. Benedetti’s son inherited his charm and used it to get a little more out of me than I would have done on my own, but I was very proud when Mr. Benedetti walked into his son’s house on Monument Avenue and saw, “The Pudners” as one of the sponsors of the event.
We managed to connect, and have what turned out to be our last conversation. It was just a few minutes, and I couldn’t convey how important he had been to my career because there were a couple of hundred people there, and it seemed everyone had something for which they needed to thank Mr. Benedetti.
Yes, it truly was a wonderful life – RIP Mr. Benedetti and may the Mass and funeral in an hour bring peace to all the Benedetti children and the whole St. Benedict’s and Richmond Virginia community that has lost such a true champion on this earth.
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