By Carol L. Cole
Transcript Staff Writer
When Dr. Cindy Simon Rosenthal is sworn in as mayor July 3, she’ll become the first popularly elected female mayor of Norman.
But the honor of being Norman’s first female mayor went long ago to Granite native June Tompkins Benson, also Oklahoma’s first female mayor. Benson served in that office from 1957 to 1960, elected to two terms by city commissioners.
It was back in the days of Ozzie and Harriet, white gloves and carefully coifed hair. Women were often referred to, as she was, in the context of their husbands — Mrs. Oliver Benson, wife of University of Oklahoma George L. Cross research professor in political science, Dr. Oliver Benson.
But that didn’t slow or stop this remarkable woman, who came to understand and appreciate politics at a young age growing up in McAlester as the daughter of Oklahoma legislator Elmer Tompkins and Bessie Tompkins.
“She just had that talent, this amazing talent and this inner drive was always there to make things better,” said Linda Price, Norman revitalization manager, who considered Benson a mentor. Price was the first woman hired by the city in a professional capacity in 1975. “She was not afraid to tackle anything.”
“It wasn’t limited to any one specific area,” Price said. “(Benson) was concerned about voting rights. She was concerned about health care. She was concerned about obviously environmental issues. She was very concerned about planning issues. She just always was doing something.”
Benson, who died Sept. 15, 1981, after a sudden illness, is remembered as a skilled politician with a strong sense of humor as one of her trademarks. She didn’t slow down after leaving the mayor’s seat, immersing herself in environmental issues and serving several years on the Environmental Control Advisory Board.
Attorney and former councilmember Harold Heiple remembers being on the other side of the argument when Benson was working on getting a city sign ordinance passed. He had been hired by a sign company to plead its case.
“June and I were often on opposite sides of issues, but we had a wonderful relationship with each other,” said Heiple, who sat on council 1969-1971.
One day a big package arrived for him from Benson, who was vacationing with her husband at the family’s Colorado cabin. It was a newspaper clipping of a large billboard that had been supported by two wooden telephone poles. The sign had been chopped down and was lying on the ground.
“And she had written, ‘Honest to God, Harold. It wasn’t me,’” he said, laughing.
He said a person could disagree about what she was arguing about, but it was impossible to be angry with her.
“She was such a bright and energetic and articulate person and it was just a real joy to know her. She is one of my fond memories of this town,” Heiple said. “She would press her point and she would push. … But she was always a lady and civil and well-mannered.”
Former councilmember Libba Smith was on council when Benson died in 1981, and said at that time that Norman “lost its only statesman.”
Smith said Benson was either loved or hated by those who knew her.
“I loved her,” she said. “And I’m a better councilmember for having known June Benson.”
Smith recently reminisced about Benson.
“Really a lovable person. Even if you didn’t agree with her,” she said.
Making of a mayor
Benson attended city commission as president of the League of Women Voters in the early 1950s, back when it wasn’t unusual for committee meetings to last 10 minutes and all business was decided beforehand.
Her friends urged her to run for commission in 1953 and she was elected to the seven-person commission.
May 14, 1957, Benson was elected mayor on the sixth ballot, which apparently surprised her as much as anyone else.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to carry me piggyback to the chair,” she is reported as having said in a Norman Transcript article.
In May 26, 1957, the Norman Transcript noted that “Norman’s mayor, Mrs. Oliver Benson, saw the fruition of four years of her work Saturday morning when she stood in Gov. Raymond Gary’s office as he signed into law a bill setting up a central county voter registration system.”
The four years of work on Benson’s master’s thesis at the University of Oklahoma, “Election Practices in Oklahoma,” resulted in the passage of the Oklahoma Election Reform Act of 1957, which included measures like recording voters’ signatures and periodic purging of the rolls of the names of those who had died or moved away.
She presented former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with honorary citizenship on a visit to Norman in 1958.
Some of Benson and ECAB’s other accomplishments were a noise control ordinance, voluntary waste oil collection program, a firm stand favoring protection and preservation of the Canadian River and its environs, and efforts to protect the water quality of Lake Thunderbird. Benson also worked for codification of the zoning ordinance and establishment of inspections for day care centers.
Benson told The Transcript in 1972, she was proudest of bringing a sense of professionalism to the city manager job. She insisted on Norman hiring a trained city manager, as opposed to its previous practice of hiring a local businessman to be city manager.
After leaving office, she was active as a member of Common Cause, director of the Oklahoma Municipal League, president of the League of Women Voters and chairperson for the Community Development Block Grant program.
Benson served eight terms as ECAB chairperson.
She was appointed in 1979 by Gov. George Nigh to be chairperson of the State Pollution Control Coordinating Board and later named Conservationist of the Year at the 1980 Oklahoma Conservation Achievement Awards.
Even after she died in 1981, the awards kept coming.
Land was acquired with Community Block Development Grant funds for June Benson Park, named in her honor at Peters Avenue and Alameda Street.
Benson was posthumously named to the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame in 1985.
At the time of her death, she was survived by her husband; children Megan Benson and Dr. John Michael Benson; six grandchildren and one great-grandchild; and a brother Herbert Tompkins.
By Carol L. Cole