I Believed and So I Spoke
A Genealogical Account of the Lives of Reverend C. L. “Buddy” Benton and Jean (Kitchens) Benton
By Cynthia Benton Horn
Through many dangers, toils and snares we have already come.
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far and Grace will lead us home.
– Amazing Grace
“Amazing Grace” appeared to be Buddy Benton’s favorite song. Ironically, the essence of these two short sentences defines his life and ultimate destiny.
Clarence Leonard “Buddy” Benton was born in Charleston, South Carolina on 2 Dec 1925 to Clarence John Benton and Minnie (Huthmacker) Benton. His initial years were those of a modest beginning. However his potential to become more was apparent in his self-driven accomplishments. As a boy he taught himself to play the electric guitar and the piano, skills he would later use as the leader of a band and as a minister. He received good marks in school and was the assistant editor of his high school newspaper. He was handsome, intelligent and charismatic. On 12 July 1946 Buddy married an equally self-driven woman named Jean Elizabeth Kitchens. She too had taught herself to play the piano as well as to exude grace and move beyond the troubled family situations in which she was raised. Jean, the daughter of Harley and Bertha (Shealy) Kitchens, was born in Gainesville, Florida on 13 Apr 1929. Buddy and Jean committed themselves to a life of ministering to others through the word of God. However as the two stepped onto their plane to join a religious event in Montreal, Canada on 7 Sep 1971 they were unaware of the danger and demise that lie ahead of them. A few short hours after their departure they found themselves in a tragic situation that ended their lives.
At the height of Buddy’s teenage years the United States became involved in WWII. On 10 July 1943 the “largest amphibious invasion in history” was underway in Sicily, Italy. Perhaps this influenced Buddy’s decision twelve days later, on 22 July 1942, to enlist in the United States Navy. With the minimum age of conscription being 18, and he only 17 ½, it appears that he may have had to get permission from his parents to sign up. His youth driven enthusiasm to be part of the war was apparent in a letter that he sent to his family from Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He had just passed his physical exams and had been sworn in. He stated in his letter that he was shipping out at 1pm, followed by “that sure sounds good” and “I am having a good time.” Over the next 3 years he served as an naval airplane mechanic and returned unscathed. On 11 May 1945 he was honorably discharged.
After his honorable discharge on 11 May 1945 he became the lead singer and guitarist for the “Carolina Playboys” – a country music band from 1946 to 1948. During this time he met Jean Elizabeth Kitchens. It is unknown exactly how she and Buddy met but they both loved music and dancing (they jitter bugged and won many competitions) so this may have been how they first encountered each other. On 12 July 1946 Buddy and Jean married in Charleston, South Carolina.
Shortly before the Korean War, on 9 Apr 1948, Buddy enlisted in the US Navy again. Soon thereafter, on 25 June 1948, their first child Clarence Leonard Benton Jr. was born in Charleston, South Carolina. Their second child, Bruce Wayne Benton, was born the following year on 05 Aug 1949 in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Buddy remained in the Navy until his second honorable discharge on 16 Feb 1951. It was during this enlistment period that he encountered a life changing experience. Specific details around this event are vague but it seems that he was in a plane that nearly crashed, during which he prayed and promised to commit his life to the ministry should his life be spared. He stuck to his promise and as soon as he got out of the service he became an ordained Baptist minister. He was again ordained at the Charleston Revival Center on 15 May 1956 and the Bible Baptist Church on 1 June 1968.
At the beginning of Buddy’s ministerial career he was an evangelist. As such he, Jean and their two boys traveled across the United States, ministering in places such as Brooklyn, New York and Tampa, Florida. Pulling a camper behind them, they spent 1 to 2 weeks at each location. They later acquired a tent for outdoor revivals. When the boys reached an age where they should attend school, Buddy and Jean decided to settle down and start their own church.
At first they followed the teachings of the Baptist church, then the Church of God and finally the Interdenominational church. On 29 Nov 1955 Buddy and Jean started conducting revival services under the name of The Charleston Revival Center in a YMCA in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. They moved the revival center shortly thereafter to another location on nearby George Street. Within 5 weeks the congregation had outgrown the second location, prompting them to move to a larger space, which was a warehouse. Six months later the church outgrew their facility again. The Revival Center, as it was known, was then moved to Dorchester Road in North Charleston, South Carolina. The church was renamed the Charleston Community Church. In 3 short years the church had grown from 14 to 250 members.
An article in the Charleston News and Courier stated that the church was the only interdenominational Community Church in South Carolina. The mission of the church was to provide a place where all could come to worship regardless of religious designation. At the time this was a very progressive approach to religion that compelled followers and yielded an abundant membership.
At home Buddy entertained his family and the friends of his children by playing his electric guitar. Although passionate about playing he did not feel that it would be well received within the church so he learned to play the accordion, an acceptable instrument of the time. Jean, although capable of playing the piano, was apprehensive about her ability to play the organ so she “put feet to prayers” and learned. Knowing their father’s passion, Buddy’s sons urged him to play the guitar in church. So Buddy tried it – a dead silence fell over the otherwise passionate parishioners. His sons encouraged him two more times to play his guitar in church. Buddy attempted to integrate his instrument of choice on the following two Sundays, after which it was joyously accepted by the congregation. After this he never played the accordion again.
Buddy explored every avenue to share his beliefs. He had his own TV (WUSN) and radio (WOKE 1340 AM) broadcasts which ran for two and fourteen years respectively. His sermons were featured in the local paper. He produced a monthly publication named The Voice of Deliverance. He ran newspaper ads about evangelical services in which he invited persons of any religion to attend. One hosting minister described Buddy as “a wonderful preacher and singer of ability.”
In 1968, to expedite travel between revivals and other religious events, Buddy learned to fly a plane. The single engine plane was a Mooney 20E. He successfully flew the plane for 3 years before tragedy struck.
In 1970 Buddy and Jean moved to Jacksonville, Florida where they continued their ministry with a group of evangelist called the “Body Of Christ.” On 7 Sept 1971 Buddy, Jean and two other members of the evangelical team, Reverend Lacey Taylor and Mrs. Judy Bracewell boarded the gold and white Mooney 20E in Belfast, Maine. Mrs. Bracewell’s husband was on another plane that shortly preceded their take off. Their destination was Montreal, Canada where they were scheduled to participate in a youth fellowship session. According to one newspaper, airport officials warned them that the “weather was not suitable for flying.” In addition the instrument panel in Buddy’s plane had been repaired earlier that day; however it appears in hindsight that the repairs may not have been efficiently implemented.
A Vermont newspaper reported that the plane departed from the Belfast Municipal Airport between 4 pm and 5 pm but neglected to file a flight plan. The last transmission received from Buddy’s plane, which requested an update on weather conditions, was received shortly after takeoff. The other plane, with additional evangelists who were also heading to Montreal for the same event, left shortly before Buddy and having hit severe weather they attempted to contact Buddy and warn him but were not successful.
Concerns about the whereabouts of the evangelistic team arose when the other plane arrived safely in Maine but Buddy’s plane did not. The Maine Civil Air Patrol searched for 3 days, during which time they received a report of a low flying plane from two woodsmen in Searsmont, Maine, about 15 miles west of Belfast. A second report was received from a resident of Searsmont who heard a loud crash just 10 miles North of Belfast. The State Senator Elden H. Shute Jr. in Rangeley, Maine, which is about 133 miles northwest of Searsmont also reported seeing a low flying plane. The bulk of the search was focused on these areas. On Saturday 11 Sep 1971 the search halted due to low visibility, fog and heavy rain. The next day the Civil Air Patrol attempted to crisscross the areas where the low flying plane had been sighted but they again had to call off the search due to poor weather conditions. The weather continued to prohibit them for the next 3 days. Then on 16 Sept 1971 they made one final attempt to find the plane but were unable to do so. The search was ended.
The following spring, 19 Mar 1972, Federal Aviation Investigators reported that a plane with four passenger’s bodies had been found on the remote and heavily wooded side of Spruce Mountain in Woodstock, Oxford County, Maine. This location was about 65 miles southwest of Rangeley where the Civil Air Patrol had focused most of their attention six months earlier. If Buddy had taken the path that was reported by the two woodsmen and the Senator he would have zigzagged to the west, east, north, southwest and then again north. Whether this is what actually happened or not is unknown since a flight plan was not submitted and communication was cut off with the airport. However if Buddy was finding it hard to avoid impaired flying conditions or if he had difficulty with his recently repaired instrument panel he may have inadvertently engaged in an unusual flight pattern.
A bobcat bounty hunter found the plane. At first glance he thought it was a deer stand but upon closer examination he discovered it was a plane and contacted authorities. The Federal Aviation Investigator’s calculations indicated that the plane was in a full turn and moving at full speed when it crashed 250 feet below the 2402-foot summit of Spruce Mountain in Woodstock, Maine. The National Transportation Safety Board reported the condition of the plane as “destroyed”.
The bodies of Buddy and Jean Benton were recovered and brought back to Charleston, South Carolina. The funeral was held on 22 March 1972 at Charleston Community Church, the same church he had lead for 14 years. They were interred at Carolina Memorial Gardens in North Charleston, South Carolina on 22 Mar 1972.
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