Aspen says goodbye to Tom Benton
ASPEN “Old Aspen” was well represented Saturday when close to 100 longtime locals gathered to celebrate the life of Tom Benton, one of Aspen’s most famous artists who died last month.Benton, who was 76 when he succumbed to his brief battle with cancer April 27, had a wide circle of friends, including Hunter S. Thompson and Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis. Benton’s family and friends spent Saturday afternoon in the Mountain View Room at the Mountain Chalet remembering the good times they all shared with the man they knew as a friend, father and husband. About a half dozen people spoke at the memorial, summing up a man whose antics were as colorful as his personality.Braudis recalled a time when Benton got himself into a mess with Rifle police after he threatened to rip the tongue out of a con man’s mouth. Benton, of course, dropped Braudis’ name when trying to get out of the trouble he found himself in.In the late 1980s, Benton realized his art wasn’t paying the bills. He needed a real paycheck so Braudis hired him as a jail deputy where he worked off and on until 2003.”In my mind he had audacity,” Braudis said of his longtime friend. “He retired four times and quit 20 times …”He fought like a wolverine in mortal combat.”As an anti-war statement during the Vietnam era, Benton blocked the driveway of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at his home in Old Snowmass so he couldn’t leave. “He considered it a moral dilemma that [McNamara] couldn’t escape,” recalled former Mayor Bill Stirling.Brian, Benton’s son, spoke of his father’s love of motorcycles and cars, although he joked that he never drove a vehicle that had a muffler, a taillight or a license plate.
Aspen Times reporter John Colson fondly remembers many of Benton and his wife, Marci’s orphan Thanksgiving dinners when the food was secondary to the evening’s events.
“They were always haphazard affairs … dinner was at whatever time,” Colson said. “It was always with eclectic friends, strange friends. It was a good thing, friendly in a twisted way.”The local artist created images that helped defined Aspen’s political upheavals in the late 1960s, collaborating with Thompson artistically and politically. Benton made a poster for Thompson when he ran for sheriff in 1970. The double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button remains one of his most important and sought-after pieces.Benton’s silk-screening work garnered him the most notoriety as an artist. His forte was political posters, some created for nationally known figures like U.S. Sen. George McGovern in his 1972 presidential bid. He also created The Aspen Wall Posters that carried political screeds from Thompson on one side and his images on the other.
Braudis said now that Benton is with his buddy Thompson, he’s probably “bitching at Hunter that it’s not art until it sells.”Juan Thompson, Hunter’s son, recalled childhood memories of his family spending time with the Benton family, including daughter Michelle and son Brian from Tom’s first wife, Betty.”Tom was my dad’s best friend and we spent countless hours with Tom’s family,” Juan said. “They were wonderful memories. Tom’s death leaves a piece of our family and our Aspen. I will miss him.”As friends reunited before the memorial service, they lamented about the loss of such an icon and reflected on the years that have passed. Most of them are grayer, older and consider themselves “survivors” of their indulgent lifestyles in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.”But it’s never the ones you expect” to pass on, said one observer. “It wonderful to have so many friends here, but unfortunate it’s for this reason,” said Michelle Sanchez.
Joe Henry said he hopes that Benton’s enormous heart will remain in all that knew him.”I always think about the twinkle in his eye,” Henry said. “The last time I saw him it wasn’t there, but I believe that the spirit goes on.”The memorial was capped off by Jimmy Ibbotson’s rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” with the large gathering singing in unison the chorus: “Will the circle be unbroken. By and by, lord, by and by. There’s a better home a-waiting in the sky, lord, in the sky.”Marci, Benton’s wife of 16 years, spoke briefly about her beloved husband, joking that she is still arranging one of his last requests – setting his ashes off in an egg timer.”I have done research on the Internet and been to every store in this valley and I have not quite found an egg timer yet but we will,” she said.
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