One of Norman’s most prominent 20th-century woman leaders was Mildred June Tompkins Benson.
Born Nov. 6, 1915, in Granite, the daughter of the Oklahoma legislator Elmer O. Tompkins and his wife, Bessie Stovall, June was raised in McAlester, where she attended public schools before studying history and government at the University of Oklahoma, earning her bachelor’s degree with a double major in government and history in 1937. She married OU George Lynn Cross Research Professor of Political Science Oliver Earl Benson on June 1, 1940, in Guthrie.
Prior to running for the city commission, June was active in the League of Women Voters, a service to which she returned after her last term in office. June’s volunteerism and civic service included everything from Common Cause to Sierra Club, National Audubon Society and the American Civil Liberties Union.
June was the first woman to serve as a mayor in the state of Oklahoma when she was elected mayor of Norman in 1957 by city commissioners. In 1953, prior to being elected to the Norman City Commission, June had already made a mark on Oklahoma politics as the first woman elected to the commission.
June served as mayor from 1957 to 1960, elected to two terms by city commissioners. Norman did not have another female mayor until Cindy Rosenthal was elected in 2007.
"It just takes one person to break barriers that will forever alter ‘business as usual’ and open the door for others to follow,” said Norman Mayor Breea Clark. “In terms of female leadership in Norman, that one person was Mayor June Benson."
In a Norman Transcript article dated March 5, 2017, reporter Joy Hampton interviewed June’s daughter, Megan Benson, who recalled several memorable incidents, including one that reveals her as a champion of civil rights.
“When we were having the civil rights protests over Brown’s Department store in Oklahoma City, there was a picket line here at Brown’s annex, which was a little store on Campus Corner,” Megan recalls in the article. “There was an ongoing picket line there while there were all the sit-ins at the store. My mom marched in it with her white gloves. The ladies wore white gloves when they went downtown, and my mom always wore white gloves. My dad drove me down across the street to watch her and said, ‘I just want you to see this.’ In hindsight that was a big deal. I think she was risking her office and her standing in the community.”
As mayor, June enjoyed many lighter moments, as well. In March 1958, she greeted Eleanor Roosevelt during a visit to Norman, presenting the first lady with a certificate recognizing her as an honorary citizen of Norman on the steps of the George L. Cross home. She is also reported to have hosted President Harry S Truman.
June was posthumously inducted into the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame in 1985, in part also to the significant contributions she made on voting and civil rights and environmental protection.
She died at the age of 65 on Sept. 15, 1981, and is buried in the IOOF Cemetery, Norman, together with her husband, who died in 1999.
For those who may wish to learn more about this early leading lady, the University Libraries maintains the June Benson Collection containing correspondence, municipal reports, minutes of city government boards and related papers. For more information, contact the Western History Collections at firstname.lastname@example.org.
June Benson Park (and soon to come, Ruby Grant Park)
Located near the Cleveland County Courthouse and the Senior Citizens Center, at 209 Alameda Stt., a neighborhood park bears June Benson’s name for her work in getting the land for the park. The park, maintained by the City of Norman, features a playground, gazebo and a bronze statue of a girl wearing a hat and holding a basket as she gathers flowers, titled The Sunflower Girl. The sculpture was donated to the community by artist L'Deane Minor Trueblood.
Norman soon will have another park named in honor of another local prominent woman: Ruby Grant Park. Ruby Grant was the daughter of Thomas Sherman Grant, who staked his claim during the 1889 Land Run on property destined to become part of Norman, and his wife, Lizzie Lou Oter Tate Grant. Ruby was a beloved elementary and high school teacher and remedial reading and math tutor. Ruby Grant Park, 3110 W. Franklin Road, on land held by Ruby’s family since 1889, will feature walking trails, a cross-country running facility, dog park, disk golf course, practice fields and an extensive playground with activities and equipment for disabled children. The park is part of the Norman Forward initiative.