HARRINGTON, Del. — Frances Benson had been hoping for a big 80th-birthday celebration this year.
COVID-19 forced her family to get creative in fulfilling that wish.
Recently, family and friends gathered in Harrington and drove by the home of the woman known to so many simply as Ms. Pammy. About 150 people, including city police and firefighters, took part to show their thanks for her decades of service to the community.
A lifelong resident of Harrington and the matriarch of a large family of five children, 15 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, Ms. Benson has been active in the area just about her entire life.
Driven by a desire to help and to be around people, she’s been involved in churches in Harrington and Dover, senior centers, the Lake Forest School District and, according to one of her daughters, has long provided advice and support to those in need.
“She is always there,” said Carla Benson-Green. “A listener, she gives spiritual guidance and advice. … She’s just one of those people that you just automatically trust. She’s compassionate. She’s genuine.”
Another daughter, Pamela Mann, described her as never rejecting a request from a friend or neighbor.
“She’s full of wisdom and knowledge and always has a word to say to someone whether they ask for it or not,” she wrote in an email. “Our mom has always instilled success in all of us with education first, accompanied with Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and 4H.
“We never went lacking … at least we never knew that we were lacking as a family because our parents worked hard and smart, yet still made time to pass on good (principles) and wisdom for us to aim for the best jobs and hopefully leave an impact in our own communities no matter where we lived.”
Even as a teenager at Dover’s William Henry Comprehensive High School, the only Black high school in the state, Ms. Benson felt a calling “to be a part of something,” she recalled.
She married young and stayed with her husband, Carl, for nearly 51 years until his death in 2009. And she still lives in the house he built for their family on West Milby Street.
Part of one of the very first graduating classes at James H. Groves Adult High School, Ms. Benson went on to work for Delaware State University, where she spent 31 years, helping students with financial aid and, in the process, building friendships that survive decades later.
She’s seen Harrington grow and change over the years, and though she no longer recognizes everyone living in the city of 3,600 or so, she’s a familiar face to many.
Ms. Pammy is a nickname she acquired as a little girl from a cousin who couldn’t pronounce her name. It stuck, and today, “most people don’t know my real name,” Ms. Benson said with a laugh.
In addition to raising five kids, she was a pastor at John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dover and St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Harrington, became the first Black president of the Harrington Senior Center, started a community center at Wesley AME to combat HIV and AIDS, volunteered in the local school district and, beginning this year, assisted at Slaughter Neck CHEER Senior Center.
Through it all, she’s found time to visit family spread across the country and even in Canada and to offer words of compassion.
“She is our mother, but we share her with so many people,” Ms. Benson-Green said.
Even a stroke suffered in 2012 did little to slow Ms. Benson down.
COVID-19, however, has forced Ms. Benson to curtail her activities, much to her frustration. But she’s tried to stay in touch with family virtually and to keep busy around the house.
“I was used to going where I wanted to and be involved,” she said. “Even now with weddings and funerals, those things, I miss the fellowship of the people. I miss that most of all.
“I can’t comfort them. I can talk to them, but I’m a hugger by nature. I just want to hug them and tell them I love them.”
Last year, she told her children she wanted a grand party for her 80th birthday. Unfortunately, the pandemic quashed that plan — or it would have, if the Benson family hadn’t come up with a special alternative.
Her children arranged a “community parade,” with people driving by the beaming octogenarian at her home. Turnout exceeded expectations, a sign of how much she’s done for the area.
It was a fitting tribute for an exceptional woman, family members agreed.
“God has been so blessed to me,” Ms. Benson said.