A San Diego icon, activist, and philanthropist, Ben F. Dillingham III leaves the community in mourning.
When we look at LGBT history and the people who blazed the trail for all of us starting from Stonewall to Marriage Equality, we often forget those who made it possible for us to have these freedoms by having to sacrifice their own, not only legally but personally.
We lost one such person on Friday, but his work and memory will live on through the ages because of his tireless efforts and commitment to service.
Ben F. Dillingham III was born in the Hawaiian Islands on May 23, 1945, at the Queen’s Hospital in Honolulu. He grew up on a ranch on the big island of Hawaii and often rode with the cowboys who worked there as a kid.
His first memory about the topic of being gay came up on the trip to boarding school when his parents warned him about what may happen there. During his time at school, he kept to himself but always felt a little different than some of the other boys.
By the time he graduated from boarding school and went to Harvard at 17 he accepted his sexuality but was still confused about what it all meant.
Dillingham joined the Marine Corp. after getting his MBA at the Harvard Business School. He was deployed to Vietnam and assigned to the headquarter's staff, but he wanted more. He eventually joined a recognizance unit there after a crash training course.
He remembers going to Black’s Beach and having his first experience with an enlisted man, even though all they did was touch, he says that’s when he first discovered the community but was still keeping a low profile because of his status in the Marines.
He spent eight years in the Marine Corp and became Captain before resigning his commission.
Once he left the service he felt freer and was able to explore more of who he really was.
He began by moving back to San Diego where he worked for General Dynamics, and then became the Chief Financial Officer for the San Diego Metropolitan Transit Development Board. Under his stewardship, the first light-rail transit system was established in San Diego.
In 1986, Ben became Chief of Staff to San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor, and after she left office, continued to manage her affairs.
But it was in his personal relationships that Ben became empowered and began to dedicate his life to the LGBT community.
Through his lifetime, Ben had three life-partners: Dannis Grady Whorton, Fredrick Stann Libby, and then Johnny Richard Beck. Each lost his battle with AIDS. The disease and its effects motivated him to become active in causes for HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness.
He was a board member for AIDS Project San Diego, AIDS Walk San Diego, L.I.F.E. Foundation, San Diego Community Research Group and Something Special Food Pantry.
He was also a member of The San Diego LGBT Community Center’s Development Committee, and a part of the United Way’s Diversity Committee, a member of the County of San Diego AIDS Services Advisory Panel.
Dillingham was also a board chair of AIDS Foundation San Diego, board treasurer of San Diego Scholarship Foundation and sat on the San Diego Human Dignity Foundation Finance Committee.
He was also an appointee of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors to the San Diego County Veterans Advisory Council and is part of the Wall of Honor committee.
The community is mourning his loss today, they are remembering his commitment not only to the community but as a loyal friend, colleauge and powerful ally. Here are a few words from those whose lives he touched.
"Captain Benjamin Dillingham III, decorated Tank Commander, dear friend and soul mate for over 35 years, has left a limitless sadness in me. Rarely has so generous a man, or brilliant an advisor, graced the halls of civil service.
Motivated by a profound faith, principled discipline, and the love of the Marine Corps he served, Ben’s contributions to San Diego (the Trolley, the Soviet Arts Festival, LGBTQ community, and copious anonymous gifts) are dwarfed only by his humility."- Hon. Maureen F. O’Connor, former San Diego Mayor
"Ben was the first for San Diego. Before Christine Kehoe and before Bonnie Dumanis – there was Ben Dillingham, representing the LGBT community in the halls of power at City Hall. He was chief of staff for Maureen O’Connor.
He was a pioneer, a mentor and a statesman. He was the lodestar for those of us aspiring to serve in politics. And he helped make it a reality for many of us. And years later, as I’ve ascended through the ranks of elected politics, I have always felt Ben’s presence. Every so often, I would get a note from Ben, expressing his pride in me for a particular issue – and for representing the LGBT community. He could take you to task too, but he’d always do that in person.
Those notes I’ve saved over the years. I feel truly fortunate to have had that kind of relationship and thoughtful attention from a gentleman and a master. Godspeed, Benjamin F. Dillingham, III!"- Hon. Toni G. Atkins, California State Senator
"Ben was truly one of a kind - a dedicated, principled and driven man whose tireless work ethic was unmatched, and whose generosity to our community and loyalty to friends were endless and unwavering. He will be sorely missed." - Hon. Ron Roberts, San Diego County Board of Supervisors
"When I was a new staffer at City Hall in 1989, knowing Ben was Mayor O’Connor’s openly gay chief of staff was a beacon for me and many others. He was a role model.
Ben never lost his Marine bearing, no matter what controversy swept through his office – right outside the mayor’s door. As the years went by, I knew Ben was a quiet, generous and vital supporter of many LGBT organizations. He was compassionate and tireless. With Gloria Johnson, Bill Beck, Mell Merrill, and now Ben, we are losing leaders who paved the way for the proud San Diego LGBT community we know today."- Hon. Christine Kehoe, former California State Senator
"Benjamin F. Dillingham was a giant, a fierce force for justice and all that is fair and right. For more than three decades he has stood, ramrod straight, never wavering, as the LGBT community’s symbol of grace, dignity, courage and integrity.
He was the epitome of an officer and a gentleman. Whether with private notes of encouragement to community members, or with powerful, incisive and insistent truths spoken to power, he has been the community’s courageous champion for justice, for truth, and for dignity.
As he passes from us, we cannot help but stand and salute his extraordinary lifetime of service. Even in our grief, we can hear his quiet, encouraging yet insistent voice reminding us, as he has so often, to 'Soldier on. The battle is not yet won.' We will Ben, remembering all you have taught us. Rest easy my friend."- Dr. Delores A. Jacobs, San Diego LGBT Community Center Chief Executive Officer
"Ben Dillingham was a faithful member of MCC San Diego for over 30 years. He loved and worshiped God in his own quiet way. In life’s joys and challenges, he drew strength from this spiritual relationship. I was honored to be his pastor for the past 10 years. He had a special love for music and donated the piano his lover, Freddie, played during worship services.
"Ben and I met monthly for almost 10 years. It was my honor to glean from his rich wisdom and experiences in life. We thoroughly enjoyed our Tuesday get-togethers.
I loved his humor, sly smile and hearty laugh. In all of his many accomplishments, Ben remained humble and unassuming. He was generous in his praise and gave credit where credit was due.
Ben was also generous with his resources. He deeply loved our community and generously supported more people and organizations than we will ever know. I believe his reward in heaven will be great, as he is welcomed with, 'Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your reward.'”- Rev. Dan Koeshall, Metropolitan Community Church San Diego Pastor
"Ben Dillingham was a very patriotic American, proud Marine, caring Christian, always-giving philanthropist, a major GLBT leader and true public servant, who I had the honor of being friends with for over 30 years. When the history of the San Diego GLBT community is written, Ben will go down as one of the trailblazers and heroes who was loved by all."- Nicole Murray Ramirez, Longtime GLBT and Latino Activist, Co-founder San Diego Pride Parade
Ben passed away from pancreatic cancer at his home in San Diego on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017.
He is survived by his mother, Mrs. Andrews Dillingham, his sister Mrs. Hugh Watts (Ceseli) Foster, his brother Henry Gaylord Dillingham II and his sister Mrs. Stuart Harold (Lorie) Rosenwald, treasured in laws, delightful nieces, and nephews and their offspring, and many good friends and colleagues.
Donations in memory of Benjamin F. Dillingham III can be sent to: The Ben F. Dillingham III Community Fund PO Box 34104 San Diego, CA 92163