Nome Mayor James “Richard” Beneville has died.
The city of Nome confirmed in a Facebook post Monday morning that Beneville, 75, died overnight at Norton Sound Regional Hospital. 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.
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 Facebook post, Beneville was remembered for his “colorful personality, passion for the community and love of the arts.”
Nome residents and visitors from around the world will remember the mayor by his iconic phrase: “Hello Central!”
A long-time dancer and former Broadway performer, Beneville moved to Nome in 1988. He suffered a stroke back in February that prevented him from traveling and advocating for Nome in Washington, D.C., earlier this spring.
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.
“But 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,” Steckman said.
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,” Steckman said. “He was just a bundle of energy at that point.”
Generations of Nome residents also know Beneville as the man who taught theater in local schools and brought community productions of musicals like “My Fair Lady” and “South Pacific” to the stage.
Beneville tried to put the spirit of public service in everything he did.
Here’s Beneville while giving KNOM a bus tour of the city in 2015:
“And I can say in all honesty I am beyond happy. And it comes down to, I have this tremendous pride to live here. I really do. It’s given me so much, and the Far North has given me so much, and maybe in my tours I try to — not repay. You can’t repay a debt like that. How do you repay that? You don’t. You just try to help things along.”
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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Beneville is survived by his two nephews and his cat Ollie.
This story has been updated.