Maria Benn Ible was a larger than life personality best known for her charity fund-raisers and for the block parties she staged for the children in her back-of-town neighbourhood.
A self-made businesswoman, she had overcome a tough childhood, but had no children of her own. She gave back to the community by throwing children’s parties for more than 40 years.
Born Maria Ann Frances Dyett in Montserrat, and known as Maria Benn for most of her life, she was shipped off to Bermuda at age 10 to be raised by a relative after her mother died.
She lived next door to labour leader Dr. E. F. Gordon and attended Matilda Crawford’s primary school at Till’s Hill.
Her school day started in the afternoonafter she had put in a full day’s work. She rose before dawn to make meat patties and to bake bread.
By late morning, she was walking the streets of Hamilton, carrying baskets laden with baked goods and fresh fruits that she sold to locals and tourists. Playmates mimicked her West Indian accent and taunted her with the rhyme “Maria, Maria, jump in the fire” because of the unusual pronunciation of her name.
She even wanted to change her name, but in an interview in 1975 in The Royal Gazette, she recalled how Gordon advised against it, saying: “You’re the only Maria In Bermuda.”
In the same interview, she said of her growing-up years: “And people talk about work. It was work and licks. But those licks set me straight.”
Details about her teenage years are sketchy, but like most young people of her era, she would have left school at age 13, possibly even younger, and gone straight into the workforce.
In October 1931, she married Arthur St. Felix Benn, a masseuse who was originally from Guyana. The couple started a bakery in Southampton, relocated it to Victoria Street, Hamilton, where they remained for 18 years, and expanded their business with the addition of a home restaurant, Maria’s.
Sometime after the end of the Second World War, they purchased a two-storey property on King Street, which doubled as their residence and place of business.
Around 1956, Benn Ible, having got out of the restaurant and bakery business, ventured into retail. She tested the waters first by selling women’s clothes out of a suitcase, before opening Maria’s Dress Shop on the ground floor of her King Street property. She sold everything from dashikis to Sunday dresses for church ladies at Maria’s, which remained in operation until the 1980s.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the ever-enterprising Benn Ible produced dances and live shows with a Caribbean flavour. She also led group tours to Trinidad’s Carnival. All were business ventures out of which her fund-raising events evolved. Over the years, she organised fashion shows, Caribbean-style mini-carnivals and Libra parties, held in celebration of her own birthday in October.
Her first children’s parties were held at Top Hat Ballroom in Southampton in the 1940s. Following her move to King Street, Benn Ible threw an annual party at her home for children from the Sunshine League Children’s Home, located on the same street. The guest list grew to include children from the neighbourhood and other homes and eventually expanded into a full-scale block party that attracted 400 kids and saw Elliott Street was closed off to traffic for an afternoon.
The former restaurateur, whose cooking skills were legendary, put together a team of helpers to help to prepare and serve the food. Gombeys provided the entertainment.
Caribbean cultureits food, music and dancewas a mainstay of Benn Ible’s life. She claimed she was the first person to introduce limbo dancing to Bermuda. She made frequent trips to Trinidad, although visits to the island of her birth were rare. An avid traveller, she embarked on tours of Africa in her later years, and marvelled at its similarities to the Caribbean.
Her contribution to the community was recognised in June 1977 when she was one of 25 people honoured with a Jubilee Medal in honour of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Other recipients included such notables as Sir Henry Tucker, then premier John Sharpe and Opposition Leader Lois Browne-Evans.
Benn Ible and Arthur Benn, a retiring man who kept out of the spotlight, were married for 48 years. A combination of hard work and thrift, which typified the lives of many immigrants, brought the couple financial security.
Arthur Benn died in September 1979 and three years later, Benn Ible’s life took a bizarre turn. In February 1982, she called a radio talk show, and told shocked viewers she intended to sell her assets and leave the Island because a black man (recently-elected Premier John Swan) was now running Bermuda.
Less than two weeks later, she sparked a flurry of media attention in the US and Bermuda when she showed up at the hospital bed of a poor Milwaukee single mother, promising to pay the full cost $150,000of a desperately-needed heart transplant.
Benn Ible had been visiting Dallas when she heard about the woman’s plight.
The media were captivated by Benn Ible’s pledge, but on her return to Bermuda, she was instead committed to St. Brendan’s Hospital (now Mid-Atlantic Wellness Centre). Friends told the local media she had been acting irrationally.
The media flurry eventually died down. The woman had the transplant surgery, but subsequently died. The hospital later revealed that Benn Ible had donated $60,000 for the procedure.
Benn Ible spent several weeks undergoing psychiatric care and was eventually released. That August, she was back to organising her annual block party.
About three years later, she remarried former DJ Edison “Ed” Ible, who was several years her junior. In October 1989, she announced plans to hold two fund-raising Libra parties in one weekend.
Soon afterwards, she and Ible moved to Florida where she would spend the rest of her life.
She died in Orange City, Florida on February 13,1999. Her body was returned to Bermuda for burial. MPs paid fulsome tribute to her in Parliament following her death.
The amount she raised for charities is not known, but beneficiaries over the years included the Sunshine League, the Lady Cubitt Compassionate Association (LCCA) and St. Paul AME Churchwhere her funeral was held.
In May 1999, a plaque that paid tribute to her community work, was erected at the corner of King and Elliott Street around the corner from her former home.
It said in part: “This plaque is placed here in memory of Maria Benn, a long-time resident of King Street who took a special interest in those who are less fortunate, and who for more than 40 years, until the early 1980s, organised annual “Block Parties” in this area for neighbourhood children and for children in special homes.