Man on the Move
A day in the life of the ubiquitous Umberto Benedetti, one of the University's most ardent and interesting supporters.
by Paddy O'Connell MacDonald
If you live in Missoula, you’re bound to spot him sooner or later. He’s that Italian guy walking at a breakneck pace around town, Grizzly stocking cap stretched to his eyebrows, canvas UM Alumni Association bag clutched in one hand, gaze focused, head bent forward. He might be making his daily rounds visiting friends at the University. Or walking through Greenough Park, his favorite stomping ground. Or to the Farmers Market, the museum, or St. Francis Catholic Church. If you try to engage him, don’t expect a long conversation. State your business and be quick about it. This man is busy—he has books to write, sauces to simmer, pictures to take, people to visit, projects to complete.
He’s Umberto “Bert” Benedetti, UM graduate, patron, ambassador, and former print shop employee—recipient of UM’s 1996 Montana Alumnus Award. Cabinetmaker. World War II internee. Benefactor to many causes. A man unlimited by age, circumstance, convention, or imagination.
A painter, poet, sculptor, photographer, and writer, Bert constantly creates art, and he shares his work with a wide audience. He has donated his black and white prints to museums. His framed photographs hang in friends’ homes and in public institutions. Bert has sent paintings, with disparate subjects—John the Baptist, JFK, Jimmy “The Schnozzola” Durante—to the Vatican, the White House, and Hollywood. He has self-published nine books. So far, that is.
A natural historian, Bert files every bit of information, useful or otherwise, in his brain. Obscure, dissimilar factoids pop from his mouth when you least expect them: the origins of medieval art, the truth about Stalin, what kind of shoes French women wore in 1935. But though well-versed in the past, Bert embraces the present and is always eager to accumulate new knowledge. “Oh, yeah?” he’ll say, scratching his temple, when presented with an idea. “I did not know anything about that. You open my mind.”
Rarely missing a Mansfield Conference, a foreign film, or a lecture series and often donating money to UM fund drives, Bert is among the University’s most loyal supporters. “The University is my life,” he says. “I have friends there. I like to be with educated people.”
An outside-the-box thinker, Bert’s approach to life is idiosyncratic, his solutions to problems sometimes unorthodox. A while back, he took to wearing a pair of lace-up Red Wing boots, his left big toe—bare—protruding from a carefully cut hole in the upper. “The leather pinched my toe,” Bert explains, shrugging. In that same cavalier manner, he keeps his overstuffed wallet closed with a rubber band, applies SuperGlue to his dental work, patches his down jacket with duct tape and reuses tinfoil, envelopes, and paper bags. “I don’t throw anything away,” he says—perhaps a nod to his European beginnings.
Originally from Vasto, Abruzzi, in Italy, Bert was one of six children born to a railway station employee. Bert’s mother died when he was a toddler, and he had some difficulty adjusting when his father remarried. A short-lived career as a “bad boy” landed Bert in a Franciscan seminary for a stint, after which he studied the techniques of carpentry, furniture making, and set building. Once finished with school, Bert moved to Genoa, where an uncle influenced him to become a cabinetmaker. This skill led to several shipboard jobs, and it was while working on Il Conte Bianncamano that Bert’s life was dramatically and permanently altered.
American troops seized Il Conte Biancamano during World War II. Its crew was relocated to Ellis Island and later to Fort Missoula, where Bert and his thirty-two shipmates, along with other Italians and, later, Japanese, were interned for the war’s duration. By the time Bert was released from Fort Missoula, America had become his home and he soon made it official, attaining U.S. citizenship in 1948.
Bert lived in Great Falls for several years, working at Columbus Hospital and St. Thomas School before leaving the state to further his education. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Spanish literature from the University of Washington and a master’s from San Francisco State College, Bert returned to Montana and taught school in Miles City. Eventually he came back to Missoula and enrolled in UM’s graduate school, working toward a master’s degree in education and embarking on a long career at the campus print shop.
No one understands the whys or wherefores of Bert’s selections; he has a system all his own. The bags don’t always contain food, either. The 1970 faculty evaluation results might be inside, or the 1981 summer session catalog. One day Bert gave an Alumni Office denizen a brown felt Borsolino hat, circa 1942, that he’d discovered—in a cardboard suitcase under his bed—while tidying his apartment.
Bert’s cadre of friends, which include President George Dennison and Director of Residence Life Ron Brunell, always are willing to extend themselves. Cara Simkins, a former UM employee and alumna, types Bert’s manuscripts and correspondence; Betsy Holmquist, Montanan Class Notes editor, bakes him his favorite “gold cake” on a regular basis. “I know it’s time,” Betsy says, “because I’ll find the cake pan, a dozen eggs, and a bottle of anisette on my doorstep.”
UM’s Associate Vice President of Administration and Finance Rosi Keller cooks holiday dinners for Bert and also cuts his hair. “She does a good job,” he says. Bert has a standing Mass-and-breakfast date with Aggie Madison, widow of Bert’s former print shop boss. During the legislative session he occasionally accompanies Alumni Director Bill Johnston on trips to Helena.
Favors to Bert never go unrewarded. He repays kindnesses with glossy greeting cards and generous portions of delicatessen fare: Genoa salami, prosciutto, freshly grated Parmesan, Greek olives, biscotti, or St. Andrew’s Island semi-soft cheese. Should someone take him a plate of cookies or fried chicken, the plate is promptly returned, filled to overflowing with smoked meats and savory cheeses.
Ask Bert how old he is and he gives you a look. “It’s the quality of the person, not the age,” he says, then waves his hand, dismissing you for a small-town fool. “You people are too concerned about that. In New York, they never ask your age or why you have an accent. But here . . . .” He shakes his head, rolls his eyes ceiling-ward. Only recently has Bert admitted that the last birthday he celebrated was his ninetieth.
A lifelong bachelor, Bert’s face saddens when the subject of marriage comes up. “I didn’t find a match . . . the congeniality,” he says. “It’s not beauty or the shape; it’s the relationship . . . the talk. I didn’t find that.” Not to say he isn’t still looking. “I believe in love,” Bert says. “I want a person who understands my ideas. I want to trust. There’s the key that takes care of everything.”
Bert’s strongest desire is to be remembered. To that purpose, he has given away countless bits of memorabilia to various organizations. He gave the tools he used to build cabinets—and stages for entertainment of war internees at Fort Missoula—to the Fort Missoula Historical Museum. He gave paintings and photographs to the University of Great Falls and the Art Museum of Missoula. But the biggest benefactor is UM. Mansfield Library already has catalogued three footlockers of Bert’s historical books. His painting, “The Tragic Drama of the Kennedys,” hangs on the second floor of Pantzer Hall. And Bert has donated dozens of books, photograph albums, and paintings to the Alumni Office.
On the whole, Bert’s health is good. Last year, however, he suffered a heart attack and now wears a pacemaker. The heart attack was a great source of annoyance to Bert because, as he explains, “I’ve never had trouble with my heart before.”
For his ninetieth birthday, Bert threw himself a party, inviting all his University friends. Since then, Bert claims to have curtailed his daily campus visits. Why? “Too busy,” he replies. “I have two more books to publish,” he explains. “I have a lot of work to do.”
Paddy MacDonald, ’81 MFA, met Bert while working at UM, where for more than a decade she edited Class Notes and contributed articles to the Montanan. She currently works as a freelance writer.