For Mary Hogan Bencini, being a second-grade teacher in Geneva wasn't just a career; it was a calling and passion that manifested itself long after her pupils moved to third grade and beyond.
Bencini would stay in touch with former students through birthday cards and letters of encouragement.
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The children were the future of Geneva, and Bencini loved her town.
"Mary Hogan Bencini taught us that the way to live is to give back," recalled her friend Loy Williams Saturday at a standing-room-only memorial service for Bencini, who died unexpectedly earlier this month at the age of 63.
"Mary was not content with just teaching the academics to her students. Second grade under Mary was advanced placement. Mary was so involved in the life of Geneva that you can't go anywhere in Geneva this week without hearing Bencini stories," Williams said.
Bencini taught in Geneva School District 304 for 33 years and was the 2008 winner of the Wood Community Service Award, which is the city's equivalent of person of the year.
Friends and family members remembered Bencini's passion for community causes, such as the Geneva History Center and her efforts to secure a grant to restore the historic Viking ship.
They also shared stories about her love for garage sales and the Green Bay Packers, and an aversion to dogs and the outdoors.
"She was kind, generous, righteous and nurturing and it made a profound difference every day for everyone who knew her," said neighbor and friend, Kathy Klees. "She was patient, compassionate and challenged her students until she earned their trust. Any time anything needed to be done, she did it. She did all the stuff no one else wanted to do. There was no Geneva project too big or too small for Mary."
Bencini's niece, Jenny Woldt, who also is a teacher, marveled at how her aunt would tutor children, each with a specific lesson plan. Woldt said Bencini always gave thoughtful gifts and would plan outings into Chicago when Woldt and her family visited.
"She was the best at sneaking in learning when we were having fun," Woldt said. "It didn't matter where she took us for an exciting day. It only mattered that Mary spent the day with us."
A scholarship fund has been established and donations may be made to the Mary Hogan Bencini Scholarship Endowment, c/o the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley, 111 W. Downer Place, Suite 312, Aurora, Ill., 60506, or the Geneva History Center, 113 S. Third St., Geneva, Ill., 60134.