A little over three decades ago, as Dorothy Benson recalls it, there just weren’t that many activities for seniors in Fulton County.

So Benson and other advocates banded together and set to work. They lobbied Fulton officials and found support among the commissioners. They organized surveys of other communities to see what sorts of services they provided. Finally, a group of about 40 of them, including Benson, paid their own way for a three-day bus trip Baltimore to examine and experience that community’s senior centers.

Their work eventually led to the creation of Fulton County’s senior centers, including the one in Sandy Springs that bears Benson’ name, the Dorothy C. Benson Mulitpurpose Center at 6500 Vernon Woods Drive.

Dorothy Benson visits with Thomas Shoup
Photo by Joe Earle

It’s a building where Benson herself, now 95 years old, regularly appears. She takes part in programs, dines in the cafeteria with other seniors (She’s particularly fond of “fish day” for the fried fish.), joins in the center bocce games and generally keeps an eye on things around the place. “She’s dynamite in a little package,” said Thomas Shoup, who was chatting with Benson at the center one recent afternoon.

She’s around so much, she said, that some other senior center regulars say she should have her own parking place, but she doesn’t think that would be right. Besides, the walk to her car gives her exercise, she said. “She’s an everyday person,” Shoup said. “When she goes in [the center], she’ll wait in line like everybody else.”

The center showcases only part of Benson’s commitment to Fulton County seniors. She chairs the Fulton County Council on Aging, was the first chairman of Senior Services North Fulton, is a member of the Fulton County Commission on Elderly Affairs, has advised Grady Hospital and regularly speaks out on senior issues. Her calendar remains filled with meetings related to seniors’ issues.

“I’ve worked harder since I retired than I ever did before I retired,” Benson said.

Local officials take note. Last year, the Georgia Senate named Benson a “Distinguished Older Georgian,” saying she is “omnipresent, advocating for seniors at the Capitol or at municipality, county, or regional commission meetings.”

Fulton County Commissioner Bob Ellis calls her “consistently tenacious and persistent in her work and advocacy.”

“She is passionate about ‘affordable housing’ within north Fulton,” Ellis said in an email. “She is a true advocate for seniors being able to remain in the community that they love.  She is just tireless in getting it done!”

She’s also a fixture around north Fulton County, where she’s lived for about 60 years. She was born in Pennsylvania, she said, but grew up in Miami. “My father retired when I was very young,” she said.

Her husband’s job brought them to Atlanta and they settled in Sandy Springs, then just a country crossroads. The business district offered little more than a gas station and grocery store on Roswell Road, Benson recalled. “It was before any of this development happened,” she said.

The Benson family lived on a farm, where Dorothy taught horseback riding. “I built the barn—literally,” she said. “I sawed the wood and hammered the boards.”

She taught riding for 50 years, she said. She worked with the U.S. Pony Club, would take the family’s horses for a swim in lakes on the Glenn estate, she said, “and we always rode horses in parades” in the area. “When they started building GA 400,” she said, “we could take our horses over there. It was like a race track.”

Dorothy Benson and one of her stained glass creations
Photo by Joe Earle

For the past 40 years or so, she’s lived in Alpharetta. About 30 years ago, she took up working with stained glass. She’d studied art in college and painted with oils and pastels and other media, but found a new interest in working with the colored glass. “I wanted to learn, so I went out and took lessons,” she said. “I just liked stained glass.”

Now she teaches classes twice a week to teach others how to work with stained glass. And pieces of her own work are permanently on display at the senior center that bears her name. She made six stained-glass panels for the center. Each panel shows images of native Georgia flowers.

At the Benson Center, it sometimes seems Dorothy Benson’s work is never quite done. One recent afternoon, after showing a visitor around, she headed off for a quick conference with staff members.

She wanted to find a place somewhere in the busy senior center to set up a Wii computer gaming system for interactive bowling, she said. That way, she said, the bocce players could continue their twice weekly games through the cold days of winter.

Three questions for Dorothy Benson

Q: Who are your heroes?

A: John Glenn, the late astronaut and U.S. senator. I admire what he did and how he carried into his old age. And I have a local one: Diane Williamson, executive director of The Council on Aging. She is one who pushed to get senior services in Fulton County. And she’s still in it. She’s the one who pushes it. She’s my hero.

Q: What’s your favorite recreational activity?

A: At the [Benson Multipurpose] Center, we have bocce courts.

Q: What’s your favorite book or movie, and why?

A: I don’t have any one book that’s a favorite. I like the ones Danielle Steel writes. The movie? That’s hard. I like the old movies. I like the Andy Griffith Show.

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