Obituaries

Leona Benoit, a tireless advocate for peace, dies at 105

Mrs. Benoit could remember celebrating the end of World War I — when she had just turned 5.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File 2013
Mrs. Benoit could remember celebrating the end of World War I — when she had just turned 5.

She was born nearly a year before World War I began, and as wars followed wars Leona Benoit could no longer stay silent.

“It wasn’t anything I really wanted to do,” she said of her decision to form Stoughton Mothers for Peace in 1967, during the Vietnam War. “I just felt my conscience wouldn’t let me rest.”

When Mrs. Benoit died at 105 Monday in the Copley at Stoughton nursing and rehabilitation center, she may well have been New England’s oldest peace activist. Surely she was the area’s only antiwar protester who could remember celebrating the Armistice that ended World War I — when she had just turned 5.

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“War doesn’t settle anything,” she told the Globe in 2013, just after her 100th birthday. “If it did, we wouldn’t be having continuous wars. I don’t know who is right or wrong or what the problems are, but they are never going to be solved by killing.”

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Born in 1913, Leona Mahoney grew up during wartime. Her early memories are of a sugar shortage and of gathering with her family around the piano each Sunday evening. Among the songs that filled the room was a mournful tune about peace that her mother would sing.

Though not yet in school, young Leona was aware that a war was being fought far away. “We didn’t know it like kids know it today,” she recalled in the 2013 interview, “but we knew it was a bad thing.”

And when the Armistice that ended World War I took effect Nov. 11, 1918 — on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — she and her two older sisters danced in the backyard of their home in Stoughton while the whistle blew in town, heralding the arrival of peace.

In the decades that followed, she and the world would know more wartime than peacetime.

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Born in Stoughton, Leona was the third of five children whose parents were Daniel H. Mahoney, a train ticket agent, and Mary Pauline Kelleher. Leona graduated from Stoughton High School in 1931 and worked on and off for some 15 years at a woolen mill in town.

During World War II, her only brother, Daniel H. Mahoney Jr., served in the Army Air Forces. In 1944, he was flying over what was then Yugoslavia when his plane was shot down. Initially, he was reported missing in action. The Mahoney family waited until 1949 to receive official word that he had been killed in action.

Mrs. Benoit’s first marriage ended in divorce.

In 1946, the year after the war ended, she went out dancing one night and met Joseph M. Benoit, an Air Force veteran. They married in 1948.

His family had also suffered losses during the war. Two of his brothers were killed in action, and Mr. Benoit was in a Nazi prisoner of war camp for 13 months.

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Looking back years later, Mrs. Benoit thought she should have become a peace activist then. “I wish I had started after we dropped the bomb on Japan,” she said in 2013.

“That is the biggest regret of my life. We didn’t stop what we were doing. We should have been outraged,” she said, adding that “it was the worst thing any country has ever done.”

In 1967, she became the leader of Stoughton Mothers for Peace, prompted in part by concerns about her son, Joseph Benoit Jr., who was nearing high school graduation during the Vietnam War. Though the organization officially ceased its work after the war ended, Mrs. Benoit kept pushing for peace.

“I never really stopped,” she told the Globe.

Though Stoughton Mothers for Peace officially ceased its work after the Vietnam War, Mrs. Benoit kept pushing.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File 2013
Though Stoughton Mothers for Peace officially ceased its work after the Vietnam War, Mrs. Benoit kept pushing.

After all, there was the Gulf War, which began in 1990, along with the Iraq War, which started in 2003. Then there is the war in Afghanistan, which was launched in 2001 and outlives Mrs. Benoit.

One day when she was in her mid-90s — amid the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — she went to an Army recruiting office and spoke her mind before being escorted out the door.

“I went in and told them they looked like nice young men,” she later recalled, “and asked if they ever thought . . . to be part of working for peace.”

Leona Mahoney Benoit waged peace from her hometown of Stoughton nearly all her life, save a few years that she lived in Florida. She moved back to Stoughton from Florida when her husband died in 1982. He had owned a house-painting business and had also worked at a service station.

Mrs. Benoit “always spoke with kindness,” her great-niece Michelle Mello of Somerset said. “Even though she felt strongly about peace, and would call in to the radio station, she did it in a kind way.”

Over the years, Mrs. Benoit was a regular writer of letters to newspaper editors. In a 1974 letter the Globe published, she questioned the practice of firing weapons at Memorial Day ceremonies to commemorate the war dead.

“This seems to make as much sense as it would were we to drive through the cemetery in a high-speed motor vehicle coming to a screeching halt at the grave of the victim of a traffic accident,” she wrote.

“To stand and shudder” each year at the retort of rifles, she added, “indicates how far our country has progressed as we near our 200th anniversary.”

In a tribute, Michelle wrote: “I’ll miss you Aunt Leona. You were inspiring to everyone who knew you and taught me so much about what’s really important in life: kindness, peace, and love.”

Along with her son, Joseph, who lives in Stoughton, and Michelle, Mrs. Benoit leaves two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Her family will hold visiting hours beginning at 4 p.m. Tuesday in Farley Funeral Home in Stoughton. The funeral service will be private.

Though Mrs. Benoit had also worked for five years as a florist at Purple Statice in Easton, which her nephew Wayne Robinson founded, she always considered peace activism her primary occupation.

“She wanted people to be at peace and to be happy. That’s what she always wanted for us,” Michelle said. “I think that’s why she hung around so long. She was afraid to leave us because of the way the world is.”

Mrs. Benoit believed in the effectiveness of activism and dismissed any notion that, for example, President Richard M. Nixon deserved credit for stopping the Vietnam War.

“People say Nixon ended the war. It was the people,” she said after her 100th birthday. “When enough people got out in the street and protested, they ended the war.”

She considered such efforts to be a task without end.

“I’m just waiting around because I haven’t finished my work yet,” she told the Brockton Enterprise for a profile that was published on Nov. 11, 2017, the 99th anniversary of the Armistice she had welcomed with a celebratory dance.

Legally blind in her last years, Mrs. Benoit still made phone calls, sitting amid peace posters that her great-grandchildren, great-nieces, and great-nephews had made.

And at the age of 100, she told the Globe that through war after war, her ambitions for peace endured.

“I never give up hope,” she said.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BryanMarquard.