David A. Beale, a Florida attorney and executive director of the Bennie and Martha Benjamin Foundation, was joined by Dr. Walter J. M. Pederson Jr., a St. Croix orthopedic surgeon and chairman of the St. Croix Benjamin Scholarship Foundation, in announcing the prize.
"For the past fourteen years this has been one of the most rewarding parts of my career not just tending broken bones and joints … but to see young people come back and take care of their own," Pederson said.
Virgin Islanders receive scholarships ranging from $5000 to $10,000 per year annually from the foundation. Recipients must sign contracts pledging to return after completing their educations and practice in the Virgin Islands for a period of two, three, or four years depending on the size of the award. If they do not return to the territory, scholarships revert to loans that must be repaid, Beale said.
Dr. Kendall Griffith, a St. Croix cardiologist and past recipient of a Bennie and Martha Benjamin Foundation scholarship, welcomed attendees and said that the foundation, since its start in 1992, has given $574,000 in scholarships and $197,000 for equipment to the St. Croix hospital.
"That's a lot of money that's a lot of support," said Gregory J. Calliste, chief executive officer of Juan Luis Hospital, thanking foundation representatives for helping build a strong local staff. Other past scholarship recipients who were present and recognized at the ceremony as medical professionals now employed on St. Croix included Michelle Huggins-Molloy, R.P.H., Jill Price, R.N., and Audrey Bacchus R.N.
Following the presentation, Pederson, Griffith, and Beale unveiled new plaques in the hospital lobby that list the foundation's donations and scholarship winners.
Foundation officials made additional donations earlier this week on St. Thomas to be used for a state-of-the-art dental machine and for an auditorium in the new Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Institute (See St. Thomas Source story Benjamin Foundation Makes Two Health-related Donations in One Day).
Beale said that the foundation has donated $2 million so far for medical needs in the territory during the past 14 years, including funding for clinic equipment and public health projects.
"Bennie believed in helping the people," said Beale. "His vision was that people here would get the same kind of health care they get on the mainland."
Claude A. (Bennie) Benjamin was born on St. Croix Nov. 4, 1907, and moved to New York to study music. In association with Sol Marcus and later with George David Weiss, Benjamin wrote hit songs recorded by the Ink Spots, Vic Damone, Patti Page, Frank Sinatra, and other well-known performers. Benjamin formed his own music publishing company in 1968 and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1984.
Benjamin was married to the late Martha Flores Benjamin and, before his death in 1989, established the memorial foundation that carries both their names to help improve the territory's health care system. The foundation was funded initially with approximately $2 million in real estate and with music royalties that continue to come in according to Beale. A 1997 Oscar-nominated movie set in the 1950's, L.A. Confidential, featured Benjamin's song The Wheel of Fortune, written about St. Croix, on its sound track.
"The forties and fifties that was his heyday," Beale said.
Following Benjamin's death 16 years ago, Beale, whose law partner knew the songwriter, came to St. Croix in 1991 and met with Pederson for the first time. This week's trip was the 15th visit to the U.S. Virgin Islands since then for the attorney, who was joined at the event by his wife Tina and by Judith Grybowski, PhD, territorial liaison to the foundation.
"It's a pleasure to come back and see the recipients of our scholarships," said Beale, recalling that he told Pederson many years ago that someday they would witness their scholarship students practicing medicine in the hospital.
"Today we see the fruits of our labors. The people of St. Croix have better health care because of what we have done together," said Beale. "Today, Bennie is up there smiling."
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