The architects’ original specifications for the popular community pool in Waveny Park were for a certified Olympic competition pool that could play host to official state, regional and national swim meets, according to Steve Karl.
Citing an anecdote from Assistant Recreation Director Bill Kapp, Karl told more than 200 people gathered poolside Saturday morning that Steve Benko immediately objected to those plans “because the shallow end of the pool was about 20 feet long at a depth of six feet, and sloping much deeper to the diving well end.”
“Steve realized as a municipal pool, we had to have a shallow end three-and-a-half to four feet deep so that kids and teens could stand up,” Karl continued. “The battle would continue as the architects refused to build a custom pool. Steve also objected to the length of the shallow end, that it was too small, and mandated that the shallow end should be at least doubled in size, and the entire slope of the pool would be would be re-engineered. This was because as a municipal pool we had to accommodate most of the public to enjoy the shallow end. Back to the drawing bard the architects went, reluctantly came back to New Canaan two weeks later with a new plan and Steve’s demands were answered, as always.”
And, as always, New Canaan benefitted from Benko’s foresight and persistence.
Karl led a dedication ceremony to rename the community facility the “Steve Benko Pool,” with town officials unveiling multiple new signs on a picture-perfect warm-weather weekend.
Benko’s family and friends, town officials, members of the New Canaan Department of Public Works and those who worked closely on the pool project when it was built 20 years ago attended the gathering. What started as an effort to honor Benko for his dedicated service to the community through five decades as recreation director, among many other roles, became a fitting way to pay tribute to the man known as “Mr. New Canaan” after he died Feb. 12 following a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 71.
“Only Steve Benko could order up a day like today,” Karl said in his opening remarks. “I’m sure he mentioned to God, ‘Hey, could give me a sunny day?’ And God did not say no. Nobody could say no to Steve Benko.”
In addition to Karl, those taking to the podium included the Rev. Scott Herr, who led those gathered in prayer, First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, former Parks & Recreation Commission Chair Bob Rogers, Family Fourth Committee chair, former New Canaan Baseball president and former town Administrative Officer Tom Stadler, New Canaan Fire Co. No. 1 member Sven Englund, Benko’s wife of 31 years, Sue Baer Benko, state Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-125th) and New Canaan High School Athletic Director Jay Egan.
Benko’s “daily dedication, work ethic, and devotion to the community was unparalleled,” Karl said.
“While many people have worked for our town over the years, it’s safe to say that none of them have had a substantial and sustained influence on our community in terms of its overall look and feel as Steve Benko,” Karl continued. “He poured his heart and soul into his work, and seemed to enjoy it every day. Someone said recently that if there was a Mt. Rushmore in New Canaan of the most impactful people in New Canaan over the past century, Steve Benko would be at the top of the list. Of course he would’ve had designed it, gotten approvals for it and chiseled it with his own bare hands. Steve’s love of New Canaan was second only to his family, and one could argue that his extended family consisted of the 20,000 other residents who live in New Canaan.”
Moynihan said that to call Benko “an institution” in town government would be “an understatement.”
“Waveny Park was Steve’s kingdom for half a century,” Moynihan said. “Much of what’s happened in Waveny Park to enhance and beautify the property since the town acquired Waveny in 1967 had Steve’s hands on it.”
The first selectmen then listed the Waveny House preservation and the park’s registration with the National Register of Historic Places (which Moynihan himself had voted against as a Town Council member in 2014), Lapham Community Center renovation, building of Dunning Stadium, paddle courts, tennis courts at NCHS, Spencer’s Run, building of the turf fields and rebuilding of the track, walking trails and various beautification projects.
“All these Steve Benko had a hand in making happen,” Moynihan said, adding that Benko had been instrumental in planning for and overseeing Christmas Eve caroling at God’s Acre, the Memorial Day ceremony at Lakeview Cemetery, Veterans Day ceremony at God’s Acre and Family Fourth picnic and fireworks at Waveny.
Rogers said the pool was “Benko’s baby,” and that he lost all arguments with Benko in trying to get him to allow others to do some of the maintenance work such as cleaning the filters.
“But there was a benefit in that when something went wrong, Steve had the ability to fix most things quickly so that the pool could remain open,” he said.
Through several years of planning and coming before various town bodies for funding and approvals, the members of appointed and elected boards and commissions “felt that if Steve was in favor of it, it must be a good idea.”
“Such was the respect we all had for him,” Rogers recalled. “Over all of those meetings, he did not receive a ‘no’ vote.”
Stadler said he and Benko began talking about the need for a pool in New Canaan shortly after he first moved here 32 years ago.
After it was built, “I don’t know how many times Steve came into Town Hall and his shirt was splashed with chlorine,” Stadler said.
“He was in that little shed back there every morning at 5:30 in the morning checking the chlorine,” he added, pointing to a small structure on the southern edge of the pool property. “And it was splashed all over him, ‘and the pump didn’t work and I had to go down to Rye Brook to get a new pump’—Steve’s attitude is, ‘I’ve got this.’ ”
Sue Benko called the creation of the pool “a lifetime dream come true” for her husband and family, and shared a few pool-related anecdotes with the crowd. Though it was exciting to break ground for the pool’s creation more than two decades ago, she recalled Benko coming home, saying, “ ‘But I saw these little bunnies scampering away when I started to clear the area for the pool,’ because he loved the nature just as much as the pool.” She also recalled the time that Benko accidentally dropped his cellphone in the 500-pound pool cover on the day of its removal to start the season, meaning a crew had to re-cover the pool in order for him to fetch the device.
“And I don’t know if any of you ever wonder who usually got the first swim in the pool in the season?” Sue Benko said. “A couple of times it was my kids but truth be told, most of the time, it was our bulldog Butch. Steve would come over here late at night and take him with us and he would bring Butch along and Butch would christen the pool pretty much every year.”
Benko “knew about this and I know he’s thrilled I’m thrilled,” she said. “It’s a beautiful pool and I hope you all enjoy it.”