The William Benton Scholarship

In public diplomacy history, did you know about the William Benton Scholarship? Established by Benton while he was serving as the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, it was for “children of any officer or American employee of the Foreign Service or in the field service of the Department of State abroad.”

Announced in March 1946, the William Benton Scholarship provided $600 for undergraduate or graduate tuition for the 1946-1947 school year. It was soon increased to $1000, expanded to cover expenses and not just tuition, and could be divided between two or more awardees. The Education Committee of the American Foreign Service Association awarded the scholarship.

Among the four recipients of the Benton scholarship for the 1947-1948 school year was Clifton Reginald Wharton, Jr. His father, Clifton Reginald Wharton, Sr., then serving in the Azores, was the first African-American to pass the foreign service exam and later became the nation’s first African-American chief of mission. Clifton Reginald Wharton, Jr., also blazed a trail as the nation’s first Black president of a major university (Michigan State University).

Source: American Foreign Service Journal, January 1948, Vol. 25, No. 1, p16

I do not know when the William Benton Scholarship ended, but I do know it continued after Benton left the department. Benton’s interest in education goes back to his childhood and family.

William (“Bill”) Burnett Benton was born April 1, 1900, into a family deeply interested in education and foreign lands. His grandfather and grandmother were missionaries to Ottoman Syria in 1847. They moved from Aleppo to the mountain village of Bhamdoun, a five-hour trek east of Beirut. For over twenty years, the Benton’s were missionaries and teachers in the region and ultimately left behind a lasting legacy: the Benton School. The school survived the Ottoman Empire and Sykes-Picot but ended with the outbreak of World War II. Their children, Charles and Henry, attended the National School in Beirut and learned Arabic, French, and Turkish. Years ago, Amb. Ryan Crocker told me he had heard about the Benton School during his years in the region, a testament to its legacy.

Benton’s father, Charles, studied Hebrew as a theological seminary student but left, eventually moving to Minnesota. He was president of the Alliance Française of the Northwest and a professor of Romance languages at the University of Minnesota. Benton’s biographer describes how Bill as a boy would enjoy “Near Eastern” candies while his dad chatted in Arabic with Syrian fruit and candy sellers.

Bill Benton’s mother, Elma Hixson, also had a deep connection to education. She started teaching at fourteen, making her younger than many of her students. She paused her university classes to have Bill and, eighteen months later, his brother. She then resumed her education as a student in the morning and a mom for the rest of the day. She graduated in five years as Phi Beta Kappa.

The love of learning, the appreciation of education and culture (his support of the arts is a separate story) guided Bill Benton. This scholarship he established was in line with his character. So the next time you read a public diplomacy history that describes Bill as a “PR” man, know that’s not the complete story.