Black Hills State University alumna Verna Heaton Benham recently published a book documenting her life including her childhood in the Northern Hills and her time as a student at Black Hills Teachers College.
A recently published book by Black Hills State University alumna Verna Heaton Benham documents her life growing up in the Northern Hills including her time as a student at Black Hills Teachers College, where she was valedictorian of the Class of 1959.

“Champagne in a Paper Cup: Memoir of a Journey” was recently published by CrossHouse Publishing. The book is an account of Benham’s life, growing up on a small farm outside of Deadwood, graduating from Black Hills Teachers College with a degree in business administration, and joining the U.S. Foreign Service—a decision that would eventually allow her to live all over the world, meet international leaders, and witness important historical events.

According to Benham, it was a desire for perception rather than adventure that took her life down such an interesting path. “If you read my book, you will find that my entire life has contained a search for understanding—of myself, of others whether foreigners or not—and an attempt to find purpose and meaning in life,” she says.

Born in 1938, Benham grew up 12 miles south of Deadwood on her family’s homestead which lacked certain amenities such as electricity. She attended country school and Lead High School before enrolling at Black Hills Teachers College.

In 1960, Benham joined the U.S. Foreign Service—working seven months at the State Department before leaving for La Paz, Bolivia, in 1961. She did secretarial work for the American Embassy there for two years before being reassigned to the American Embassy in Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China, from 1963-1965. She then spent two years at the embassy in Santiago, Chile. During her time in Chile, she met her husband, Joseph Benham, who was working as a correspondent for Associated Press. They married in 1967 in Santiago.

After their wedding, Joseph took a new job covering all of South America for U.S. News & World Report, based in Rio de Janeiro. Joseph and Verna traveled the continent together before moving back on Thanksgiving Day 1970 to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where they had their two children. Terrorism was common during this time in Argentina, and Americans were routinely kidnapped and held for large ransoms. Verna said many U.S. companies were bombed, and on July 4, 1975, the headquarters of a terrorism-fighting death squad which adjoined the Benhams’ apartment building was also bombed. The blast knocked out several windows of their 12th floor apartment, one of which happened to fall on their sleeping baby boy who was luckily not injured.

The Benhams returned to the United States in 1980 when U.S. News & World Report assigned Joseph to its Houston bureau. In 1998, after both their children had completed college, the Benhams moved to Kerrville, Texas. “My book, except for an afterword, stopped when we came back to the United States, but my life since has been just as rewarding,” she says. Verna teaches piano and is active in various church and volunteer activities, and Joseph is involved in civic activities as well as writing a weekly column for the Kerrville Daily Times. They enjoy visits from their daughter, son, and three grandchildren. Verna’s brother, Gary Heaton, still lives on the family’s homestead outside of Deadwood.

Verna made many friends during her 20 years overseas, some of whom she calls “pearl friends” because of their immense importance in her life. Goodbyes shared with these friends at airports, which often included toasts with champagne in paper cups, and her humble beginnings inspired the title of the book—a “champagne life” of extraordinary experiences in exotic places lived by a “paper cup” girl.

“Champagne in a Paper Cup” is available in print and on Kindle from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.