Marvin Charles Benham, an islander whose life was defined by family and friendships as well as deep creativity and artistic skill, died on Tuesday, Dec. 29, at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle. He was 94 years old.
The death marks the second sad occasion that an islander has died of COVID-19 related causes, and the first time a resident of Vashon Community Care was afflicted with the disease. (See EOC Report, page 10).
“He made it through 10 long months of isolation at VCC and was days away from the vaccine, but made a short trip to the hospital in mid-December, which is where he contracted the virus,” said his granddaughter and island resident, Nicole Donnelly Martin.
Benham’s daughter and Martin’s mother, Donna Benham Donnelly, also lives on Vashon with her husband, Michael Donnelly. Both are well-known in the community.
Benham was born on Oct. 24, 1926, in Seattle, as the middle child of Bert R. Benham and Nellie Barney Benham. He was a third-generation West Seattleite and his long life spanned many chapters of American, Seattle and Vashon history.
As a child, he endured the death of his younger brother, after Billy Benham was struck by a car on Alki Avenue — a tragic and traumatic event that his granddaughter said he talked about often.
But he also shared happier memories of his childhood, she said.
He experienced the now bygone pleasures of riding the streetcar into downtown Seattle and fishing with his father in Elliott Bay, which at that time was teeming with prawns, squid, clams, oysters and salmon.
He loved sports and played them often as a child, eventually becoming the star running back of West Seattle High School’s football team.
In 1945, when he turned 18, he was drafted into the US Navy even though he was still attending high school. He received his diploma early and was still stateside when World War II ended. Also in 1945, he married his junior high school sweetheart, Blanche Estella McMath. Their two children, Donna and John, were born in 1950 and 1955, respectively. In 1950, he was recalled into the Navy and worked as a medic in Japan.
After returning from service, he attended Seattle University for a time but left to take over his family’s business, Benham Painting Company, which is now still run by his son, John.
In his career, Marvin was regarded as a highly accomplished interior painting contractor, with clients including the Gates, Allen and Weyerhaeuser families in Seattle.
In attending to these types of clients, he showed perfectionism and meticulous attention to detail in specialty work that included antiquing a baby grand piano for the Weyerhausers. He earned the nickname “Rembrandt,” from Bill Gates, Sr.
After his retirement, he embraced an ambitious new artistic interest — stone carving.
Darsie Beck, an artist on Vashon whose work includes stone carving, recalled how he had been approached by Marvin for advice around the time he began to carve.
“All of a sudden, the next thing I knew, he was carving these unbelievable marble, alabaster and soapstone sculptures,” Beck said. “It took me by surprise, but he dove in headfirst. They were just gorgeous.”
Islanders Margaret and Eric Heffelfinger exhibited his work in their now-closed Silverwood Gallery in Burton.
“It was Eric’s and my pleasure and honor to have him as one of our guest artists,” Margaret said. “He was one of the local artists that were important to the fabric of the gallery.”
Marvin and Blanche bought their first home on Vashon in the 1960s — a cabin on Klahanie Beach, for which they paid $8000. For many years, the couple used the cabin as a vacation home. In Seattle, they first lived in a house in West Seattle and later moved to a condo in Belltown. While living in Belltown, Blanche operated The Alley Cat, a vintage designer clothing store in Post Alley. That business, too, attracted a distinguished and demanding clientele.
Over time, Marvin remodeled and added onto the cabin, and also led an effort to build and maintain the tram that still serves the Klananie Beach community today.
Eventually, the couple moved to Vashon full-time in the 1990s.
“They had a wonderful community of friends on Khahanie Beach, most of whom are gone now, but some remain,” said Martin, his granddaughter. “They had annual picnics, fished and enjoyed island life. As kids, we have many, many memories on that beach.”
After Blanche’s death in 2014, Marvin lived for a brief time at a senior residence facility in West Seattle but was unhappy there — he wanted to come home to Vashon.
“This was where his heart was,” Martin said.
Although he was grief-stricken by Blanche’s passing, in time he came to be active in his new community at VCC, participating enthusiastically in all the activities offered there, especially art classes.
He also returned to his passion for carving, creating hundreds of clay dogs that he fired in his microwave for his great-grandchildren and anyone else who would take one.
In 2019, he went to his great-grandchildren’s classrooms with enough dogs for all the kids to paint.
“He loved our kids beyond measure and so delighted in them,” Martin said. “In return, they totally adored him.
In reflecting on her grandfather’s passing, Martin said that she and her family were thankful for Marvin’s long life and his deep love of his family.
He was an artist, a veteran, a music lover, a traveler, a gardener and a loyal Mariners fan, Martin said. His life was full.
But the virus, she said, did take something very valuable away from him, and from those who loved him.
“COVID took away what I now consider to be a privilege, which is to spend your final days, months, years with the people who love you, and whom you love the most,” she said. “It would have brought so much joy and comfort to us all to be together to hug, to hold hands, and to tell him how much he was loved, for whatever time we had left. In his final moments in the hospital, we asked his nurse to please not leave him so that he wouldn’t die alone. It’s a gut-wrenching request we wish no other family has to make.”
Both Martin and her mother, Donna Donnelly, urged islanders to observe all the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Please everyone, stay home and wear masks, if for nothing else than to protect the vulnerable and show support for those who have lost their loved ones,” said Martin.
“We hope people will start thinking twice about following protocols and keeping our island safe,” said Donnelly. “People don’t understand the tragedy of having to say goodbye on the phone.”
Marvin is survived by his children Donna Benham Donnelly (Michael Donnelly) and John Benham (Sharon Benham); his grandchildren Nicole Donnelly Martin (Preben Martin), Sean Donnelly (Morgan Donnelly), Derek Benham and Charles Benham; and his great-grandchildren Noa Martin, Rhys Martin, Vail Donnelly and Burke Donnelly. He was predeceased by his mother, father, brothers Russell and Billy Benham, and his wife, Blanche Estelle.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to Vashon Community Care.