Benoist honored for MSU aerospace contribution

Jerry Benoist and Dr. Roberts sitting inside of the Marvel XV-11A. (Submitted photo)

Jerry pictured on the far right with the Honda staff. (Submitted photo)

Staff Writer

Gerold “Jerry” Benoist, Sr. is a resident at The Claiborne at Adelaide who is able to look back on quite a few accomplishments in aerospace.

He was born on Oct. 10, 1934 in St. Louis and raised there by his mother, grandmother and two aunts after his father separated from the family when he was about three years old.

He and his older brother, Roy “Bud” Benoist, Jr. worked at a drugstore while they were in high school delivering medicine to help their single mother with income.

Part of their salary was a bus pass purchased by the store owner.

They used the pass to ride back and forth between home and school, and to deliver the medicine within the community.

On the weekends they used their bicycles but Jerry didn’t deliver medicine long.

Later in high school he got a job as an usher at a theatre in downtown St. Louis where there were no lights inside the establishment.

Jerry would use a flashlight to guide guests to their seats, the balcony, and concession stand.

He mastered woodworking in a high school shop class and perfected his skills over the years with many projects.

St. Louis was his home until he joined the United States Marines Corps July 31, 1953. At the time, Bud was serving in the Army and stationed in Korea.

Jerry gained a special passion for aviation in the Marines.

His major courses were Airman School and Aviation Structure Mechanic Class.

He served in Japan until he was honorably discharged July 30, 1956.

Jerry revisited St. Louis for a month or so, but he had a firing desire to become an aviation technician.

Mississippi State University had a job opening in the Department of Aerospace Engineering.

He applied, interviewed and was hired. Starkville, Mississippi became a city boy’s new home.

While in Starkville one of his friends set him up on a blind date with Mary Anne Miller.

They married May 18, 1958 and most of their married life was spent in the south side of Longview, MS where they raised their three children: Gerold “Gene” Benoist, Jr., Gay Benoist Willcutt, and Cheryl Benoist Dill.

“They had people kept us when we were little, Cheryl wasn’t even born then but they would go to Columbus all the time when it was actually a boomtown,” Gene said.

Jerry and Mary Anne would often go to Johnny and Helen’s and other restaurants.

Jerry worked as an aviation technician and shop manager with the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Mississippi State University at Raspet Flight Research Laboratory.

While his children were young he would take them to the flight lab on nights he had to work late.

They rolled around on the “Roller Creepers” in the hangar and started their own projects out of scrap wood and metal.

Jerry never received a college degree. Every bit of knowledge that he learned in aviation was from what he learned in high school and the U.S. Marines.

In 1968, Jerry assisted with the body work of a race car for the Indianapolis 500.

The MSU Department of Aerospace built the car for Glenn Bryant, a well-respected engineer at MSU, in Bryant’s basement.

He takes pride in two projects in particular.

He assisted in the experimental construction and testing of Marvel XV-11A, the first all fiberglass, turbine powered Short Takeoff and Landing (STOL) aircraft from 1958-1968.

In 1982, Jerry was asked to accompany administration from the Department of Aerospace Engineering to take Marvel to Saudi Arabia for testing on a sand runway.

Next, in 1986 Honda conducted basic research into an aircraft and began to develop composite technology in conjunction with MSU.

Jerry was one of the aviation technicians involved with the Honda jet design and manufacture.

An existing single-engine propeller aircraft was used as a base and wings and a tail were transformed to Honda’s composite version, which later resulted in a successful flight test of the aircraft.

When he worked on the Honda jet, Jerry became friends with many of the Japanese and invited them to his home.

As an avid hunter with many firearms, they loved to come and watch him and Gene shoot guns.

Only the Japanese military could carry weapons so a soft air gun was all that they knew.

“They’d come over here and they got to coming to Daddy’s wanting me to show them how to shoot a gun,” Gene said. “It was a trip to watch them. They would bring a six-pack of beer, sat them out there and blow them all to pieces with pistols.”

One even brought a pair of name brand shoes to the house to shoot holes in because he was so intrigued by it.

“They were very intrigued by Daddy’s lifestyle outside of work,” Cheryl said.

Cheryl remembers helping her mom make appetizers for them when they would visit right before Christmas to admire their Christmas tree.

“Every time they would come to the house no matter what it was for they brought some type of gift even if it was knick-knacks to sit around - but they never came to the house without giving her (Mary Anne) some type of gift,” Cheryl said.

The Honda staff became family of the Benoist family.

They kept in touch even after they left Mississippi.

On July 30, 1992 Jerry retired from Mississippi State University after 36 years.

He continued to worked for Honda for a few more years though.

In July 2018, Honda In America tweeted a photo of the five engineers who worked on the experimental aircraft called MH-01 at MSU in 1986.

The tweet said: “In 1986, five of our email engineers began working out of @msstate on an experimental aircraft called MH- 01. MH stood for ‘Mississippi Honda’ - the steps toward what would become the fastest, most fuel-efficient light jet in the world, the U.S.-made HondaJet.”

His children praises him for being a hard worker.

Working nights and weekends for extra income, he constructed airplane nosecones for aviation businesses, and part of it was done right in their kitchen.

“To do this he would bolt a piece of plexiglass to a wood frame and hear it in the oven,” his youngest daughter Cheryl Benoist Dill said.

He could make a nosecone of any size with the forms he had made of fiberglass.

This was fixed into a wooden box with side rails.

When the plexiglass was at the appropriate temperature, he would quickly remove it from the oven and place it onto the form and press down on the rails with his knees while Mary Anne or Gene stood on the outer edges of the frame until the plexiglass hardened.

“I still remember the smell of the hot plexiglass. This was a normal routine in our kitchen in the evening,” Cheryl said.

“He also built windshields for bass boats for a guy out in Jackson,” Gene said.

Though he was a hard worker, Jerry made it a priority to make time for his family.

“He made time for everybody,” Cheryl said.

Each summer the family spent a week in St. Louis to see family.

Jerry would take his children to the Gateway Arch, St. Louis Zoo, Grant’s Farm, Six Flags Over Mid-America, Anheuser-Busch Brewery, and the Meramec Caverns.

Not to mention they saw Mark McGwire play for the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

“He took my daughters to the zoo every time that we went,” Gay said.

The day after Thanksgiving was specially reserved for his wife and daughters. He would take them shopping wherever they wanted on Black Friday and found joy in taking their bags to the car while they shopped.

Whether it was in Tupelo, Jackson, Birmingham or Tuscaloosa, after a long afternoon of shopping, he would treat them to lunch at a nice restaurant.

“I’ve heard him tell many people ‘I may hurt a lot but I always take my daughters Black Friday shopping,’” Cheryl said.

“He was not embarrassed to tell anybody that he was taking his girls shopping the day after Thanksgiving.”

Jerry may have grew up in St. Louis but he acquired a country lifestyle.

Mary Anne’s father taught him how to hunt and fish and he would do the same with Gene and Gene’s daughters later on.

“I hunted with the oldest one until she got old enough, I sat with her and Daddy sat with my oldest one,” Gene said.

It was only until about five years ago that he gave up hunting.

“We rabbit hunted, deer hunted, that was his main two - I finally got him to turkey hunt some and he squirrel hunted,’” Gene added. “He dove hunted some, he never really got into bow hunting or turkey hunting until I got old enough to do it and got him doing it.”

Maybe the struggles of his mother after the absence of his father gave Jerry the determination to be the best husband and father.

In the eyes of his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren he is still the best today.

He lost his mother in 2011 and hasn’t returned to St. Louis since.

“My Daddy never was one to stay in the house he was always making something or walking down the road to exercise,” Gene said. “I mean he walked two or three miles and come back.”

He attended the Longview United Methodist Church faithfully until his wife developed dementia and he stayed home to care for her.

Mary Anne passed away June 27, 2017.

Due to the onset of his dementia Jerry was unable to return to church, but his beloved friend Jack Newell still picks him up for church when he can and goes for coffee and donuts each Monday morning.

Jerry now resides at The Claiborne at Adelaide in Starkville where he keeps the staff smiling with his whistling and occasional singing and dancing.

His family remembers him as a family man who was handy at everything.

He completely remodeled his home over the years, helped construct the interior of Gene’s house, remodeled Gay’s house, and built cabinets for Cheryl.

“He built a staircase in my house, he built all my cabinets, entertainment center,” Gene said.

Jerry built beds, armoires, vanities for his granddaughters and toy boxes when they were smaller but there’s one item that’s very special and dear to their hearts - a baby cradle handcrafted by him.

“It is heavy, thick wood and it will rock but it stands independently,” Cheryl said.

The cradle was built when Jerry got the news that his first grandchild, Bree Anne Willcutt McMinn, would be arriving.

“If you had to buy one in the store I can’t imagine how much it would cost because to us it is immaculate - my Daddy did everything,” Cheryl said.

He had a brass plaque put on it that had her name engraved.

“Every grandchild that has been born since then has used it and their name is on it with a brass plaque that has their full name and their date of birth,” she said. “It’s now been used with the first great grandchild.”

He has six grandchildren: Bree Anne Willcutt McMinn, Garland Willcutt, Ashton Benoist Burton, Brittany Benoist, Cody Dill, and Maddie Dill.

He has one great granddaughter Natalie Ann McMinn, and Olivia Kate Burton to be born in February.

There’s something that Cheryl and a family friend still laughs about today.

Cheryl’s husband, Dennis purchased a plumbing business in 2001 and she confusingly asked him “Who calls somebody to do plumbing work?”

Cheryl bragged that her dad was the plumber, electrician, carpenter, mechanic and even aviation technician.

“My Daddy did all of that when we were growing up- I never saw another person come to our house to do anything,” Cheryl said.

His family cherishes the pictures and heirlooms that they have kept of their personal craftsman over the years.

Cheryl emotionally reflected on the tweet by Honda In America: “When he retired they were just coming out with the Internet so he doesn’t know or understand about social media now or how much of a big deal it is … It excited me. I was brought to tears basically because I wish my Daddy could understand how it mad his kids feel that 30 years later there’s my Dad on Twitter out of the blue, and him not being able to understand the magnitude of it that we felt about it.”