BAR HARBOR — Benni McMullen, who died Wednesday, is remembered for her big heart and her creativity. As director of the YWCA from 1973 to 2012, she helped countless women and children. As President of the MDI Rotary in 2006, she helped the community at large. And in her involvement with the Island Arts Association, she supported fellow artists.
“She has rescued untold numbers of women from all sorts of situations,” said current YWCA executive director Jackie Davidson of her predecessor. “She just had a huge heart.”
One of those women was Abby Robinson, who first came to live at the YWCA residence with only “a laundry basket full of clothes” 18 years ago. “Benni believed that every woman deserved a chance, and that sometimes they just needed a hand up to be able to move forward.”
Robinson was offered the job of overnight “house mother,” watching after other residents. “Then I started working in the office, and in the computer room part-time,” Robinson recalled. Eventually she took over as office person, helping with the residence and organizing the children’s programming.
Robinson said she was just one of many McMullen helped as YWCA director. “Whoever came in those doors, she helped them get back on their feet.”
Nancy Howland, former director of Jesup Memorial Library, worked with McMullen each year on a combined fundraiser for the library and the YWCA.
“We did a cabaret every March. Local people sang and danced. We didn’t make a lot of money, but it was something for the town and local people to enjoy.” McMullen made refreshments, including her baklava. “She was famous for her baklava,” Howland said.
“I think she had a great deal of influence on young women and children. She had a lot of influence in the town — a good influence.”
Annette Higgins of Bar Harbor volunteered on the YWCA Board as Treasurer, at McMullen’s request. “She talked me into doing that,” Higgins remembered. “She was good at getting volunteers. She was so entrenched in the community.”
Higgins said that McMullen’s ability to recruit volunteers helped the nonprofit survive “years of not much money.”
Despite lack of funds, McMullen started several programs for children including a Head Start nursery school, girls’ softball teams, and the annual “Children’s Bazaar,” a shopping boutique for young children to buy presents for family members. “The Children’s Bazaar was very near and dear to her heart,” Higgins said.
Later Higgins and McMullen served together on the MDI Rotary. Higgins was the second female Rotary President, and she was succeeded by McMullen. “She followed me as President of the Rotary, so we worked together on a lot of projects,” she said.
McMullen was known for the crabmeat rolls she made for the seafood festival, Higgins recalled. She took the lead on the Rotary’s volunteer quilting projects. One year she organized the making of one hundred quilts to donate to the nonprofit medical organization Wrap a Smile.
Lisa Horsch Clark, who also served on the Rotary with McMullen, remembered her quilting, baking, and other crafts. “When I think of Benni, I think of wildly creative,” she said.
During the centennial year of Acadia National Park, McMullen developed a product line of balsam pillows to sell. “The proceeds went to Friends of Acadia, for the preservation of the park,” Clark said. “She was always thinking of how she could do good in the world.”
Additionally, Clark recalled, “she was devoted to her friends.” Clark remembered a surprise baby shower McMullen threw her at a Rotary gathering before her daughter was born. “She made a cake. She was famous for her wonderful creative cakes.”
Southwest Harbor artist Beth Herrick served with McMullen on the Island Arts Association (IAA). McMullen led the organization. “We called her the pointer,” Herrick reminisced. That was because McMullen would arrive at meetings with a to-do list, and she would point to people and assign tasks. “She would delegate, and it would get done.”
Beyond delegating, McMullen would also do the behind the scenes organizing that made art shows run smoothly, such as obtaining permits for the events.
Herrick said that when McMullen attended art shows to sell her own work, she always spent her earnings on other people’s artwork.
“Any money she made she would put back into the [art] community,” Herrick said.
“She was amazing, and really one of the most giving people I’ve ever met in my life,” summarized Clark.
“She did a lot in the community,” Higgins concluded. “She wasn’t looking for recognition for it. That’s just who she was.”