Lindsay Gardner talked to her dad, Steve Benko, for the last time just a few days before he passed away.
The two sat in his hospital room, unsure of what to say, Gardner recalled Thursday.
“So I asked him, I said, ‘Dad, what do you want us to do?’ We didn’t know what to do. Who knows what to do? This isn’t something we’re groomed for,” Gardner told hundreds of congregants gathered at First Presbyterian Church of New Canaan for Benko’s memorial service, and hundreds more watching a livestream online.
“What he told me was, he just wants all of us to go out and be happy. He needed us to be happy. To keep on living our lives, keep moving forward, keep on smiling. I said, ‘Well, we want you to be happy, too, that’s important.’ He said, my happiness doesn’t matter as long as you, your siblings and everyone here is happy, that’s the biggest thing he could think of. So when you leave today, try not to be sad. Just go out and be happy. Think of a fun memory of my dad, a fun story, and just remember he’s looking down all of us, happy that we’re happy.”
Benko died Feb. 12 following a recent cancer diagnosis. He was 71.
A lifelong resident, member of New Canaan High School’s class of 1968, 50-year town employee, recreation director since 1979, former chief of Fire Company No. 1, youth sports referee and coach, Benko’s passing has rippled throughout the community, drawing expressions of immeasurable loss from generations of New Canaanites.
Energetic, upbeat and generous, Benko had served a steward and guardian of Waveny Park, as well as a constant presence at important community events, working behind the scenes to ensure that the Christmas caroling at God’s Acre, Fourth of July picnic and fireworks, and ceremonies on Memorial Day and Veterans Day came off smoothly.
They were responsibilities he took on without asking, and took seriously.
Former First Selectman Rob Mallozzi, president of New Canaan Fire Company No. 1, thanked Benko’s family “for allowing Steve to be such a big part of our community and our lives.”
“We can only laugh and cry reflecting on all things Benko, because you allowed Steve the space to be so many things to be so many of us,” he said. “I know that involves some degree of personal sacrifice and I never heard you complain.”
Mallozzi ran through many of Benko’s favorite things—they include Nub cigars, Waveny, The Who, Yuengling, bourbon, Butterball sirloin steaks, baking Irish Soda bread, making paella, pickup trucks, snowplowing, fireworks, pizza trucks, fishing, firetrucks, Dunning Field, tractors, his lake house in New Jersey, deals at Stew Leonards and meteorologist Dr. Mel—and listed many of the organizations, parks and buildings in New Canaan that form his friend’s considerable legacy.
“There not a single rec or sports program that Steven’s fingerprints aren’t all over,” he said. “But to many of us, Steve is widely known and admired for his commitment to public safety. He was a life member of the Fire Company, joining in 1973 and holding many positions including chief for 14 years over two terms, he was a founding member of NCVAC, New Canaan’s EMS, Steve was a state fire instructor particularly well-respected in extrication techniques. That’s the ‘jaws of life,’ as they are commonly know. Steve was responsible for imparting his expertise to others and through this action, it can be most assuredly said he saved many lives.”
Mallozzi said he looked up to Benko “as the big bother I never had,” and came to work closely with him as part of the New Canaan Baseball/Softball organization as well as the volunteer committee that organizes the Family Fourth picnic and fireworks at Waveny.
“The end result of my friendship and work with Steve was that by the time I did become first selectman, I was under no illusions that I was ever going to have much influence, never mind manage Steve Benko,” Mallozzi said, drawing laughter from the congregation. “Not gonna happen, folks. Wasn’t going to happen.”
Mallozzi recalled one time around 2004 when the Family Fourth Committee gathered around 7:30 a.m. on the morning of July 4 “to decide—by vote—if we are going fireworks or not depending on weather or other factors.”
“So it’s quarter of 8 in the morning, we are out back of Waveny at the flagpole, saying the Pledge of Allegiance, we start going through the weather and what’s going on and I call for a vote,” Mallozzi recalled. “Are we going to have the Fourth? Because we have to call it off so things don’t get out of hand with the police coming in, the fireworks coming in over the bridge and all that. So we have a vote and it’s like 7-2. Seven to two in favor—we are going to have the event, it looks like it could be iffy weather but we’re going to have it. So we take our leave and we’re starting to walk away and Steve goes, ‘There’s no fireworks tonight.’ Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. We’ve got nine people, it was 7-2. ‘No no, I canceled them at 7 o’clock this morning, we’re gonna shoot them off tomorrow.’ Steve? Steve? You gotta be kidding me. I look over at Tom Stadler who we’d just put on the committee—we’d worked with Steve on [New Canaan] Baseball and so we kind of knew. He’s like [shrugs]. So I get home and I’m kind of upset. I love the Fourth of July and I’m a little sad, and I’m crying in my beer out on my back patio at about five o’clock and I actually rooted against Steve that night for the first time in my life. I was hoping it would be a crystal clear beautiful evening. Seven-thirty rolls around, the clouds come in, little dampness, rain comes at 8:30. I’m like it’s just what Sue said all the time, that son of a gun was right again.”
The service was led by the Rev. Scott Herr and included reading from Ecclesiastes 3 by Benko’s nephew David Benko Jr., Psalm 23 by sister Elaine Sullivan and John 16 by brother-in-law Jay Sullivan, signing of hymns “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and “Amazing Grace,” solos from Ellen Sisson (“God Is My Shepherd”) and Gabriel Fauré (“Pie Jesu”). The Rev. Mary Maples Thies led the congregation in The Lord’s Prayer. The Fire Department led the escort of ashes out of the church to the playing bagpipes, and from there the funeral procession wound past the firehouse, as well as Benko’s home and Waveny Park, prior to the interment of his ashes in Lakeview Cemetery. A reception was held afterward at Waveny House.
Herr called Benko a “husband, father, brother, uncle, friend, colleague, member of this congregation, a fireman, a coach, a mentor, a brother in Christ, otherwise known as ‘Mr. New Canaan.’ ”
In the opening prayer, Herr said, “God of all mercy and compassion, death even after a life well lived, still can come to us abruptly. Warmth and breath and presence are no more. Words that were said cannot be explained. Words unsaid remain so. Lord, we confess to you the unfinished and the unhealed, we re agonize our sorry. Thank you, that You are present to us in our grief. We are grateful that You also are the God of new beginnings and new life. Let Your spirit touch us with comfort and hope. Give us ears to hear and hearts to believe the promises of Your eternal love, through Jesus Christ, Our Lord, amen.”
In addition to his wife of 31 years, Sue Baer Benko, Benko is survived by his children, Lindsay Gardner (Christopher), of Troy, N.Y., Stephanie Benko of Philadelphia and Peter Benko of New Canaan, brother David Benko of New Canaan and sister Elaine Sullivan (Mark) of Wilton, as well as many nieces and nephews.
Stephanie Benko said that one word that could be used to describe her dad is “proud.”
“Proud of us, proud of you all, proud of this town,” she said. “As my mom likes to say, he got out of bed every day with a smile on his face. And the amazing thing is: He never used an alarm clock. I don’t know how he did it. I remember in high school, I’d come home after practice or a long day, and I’d have a big meet that weekend, and he’d have a list of all the girls in the FCIAC and the state printed out, with my name highlighted and where I ranked. He prepared me to go out, he was like, ‘Just go out and run, pick them off one-by-one.’ And he was always there. He was my biggest cheerleader.”
Another time while Stephanie was in college, Benko “braved the Labor Day traffic to drive down to Monmouth County for my meet and watch me run a cross-country race for maybe 15 seconds, saw me run through the woods,” she recalled.
“But he was happy as could be. While my mom was up at the lake, he did it because he wanted to be there and always support me, and support all of us. I am very thankful for him always being there, and he’ll continue to be there for us no matter what. Every time I run through Waveny, I think of him, and especially now, running by the pool and through the woods. I’m going to miss seeing him there, futzing around at the tennis courts or picking up garbage or just saying hi to everyone, because he was always there. On my run this morning I saw a red-tailed hawk swoop down in the middle, and I knew that was him. He’ll be with us always.”
Lifelong friend and fellow St. Aloysius School alumnus Tim Brown said Benko’s passing “made very little sense, way too fast to process, difficult to rationalize, somewhat impossible to accept, we were robbed of our brother.”
“How do you say goodbye to that person, a dear friend, who less than two months ago was New Canaan’s Iron Horse, our Lou Gehrig?” Brown said. “I think about his discomfort when seeing him at the house a few weeks ago with the kids and Sue. Never a whimper but in obvious pain. He was smiling and engaging with the kids, and sharing past stories, as if it were a normal day.”
Saying Benko always had a “million dollar boy’s smile,” Brown added, “It was always about others. Pleasing and just doing, that was him. Always in the background, never looking to take credit, though richly deserved. He was hijacked and sucker-punched by this dreaded disease. It was never a fair fight, but he fought hard to the end. He was a Benko—that’s just what they do. They fight hard.”
Referring to the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Brown called Benko New Canaan’s George Bailey, the lead character memorably played by Jimmy Stewart.
“He just had no idea the amount of people he touched, the impact he had,” Brown said of his friend. “Think about it: Without Steve Benko, the youth travel soccer program wouldn’t have begun some 40 years ago. He made all kids feel like major leaguers. The Waveny Pool? Probably not. Fireworks? No way. The volunteer ambulance corps on day one, he was there. The bandstand and lights are not up to standard for God’s Acre caroling, the development of our youth fields would not have been realized. Dunning Field? His fingerprints are all over the place. Everything at Waveny wouldn’t be the same.”
Benko was “always there to assist,” Brown said, drawing up a memory of a Fourth of July fireworks from years ago.
“My oldest was terrified of the noise,” Brown recalled. “Steve said, ‘I got this.’ He took him up to his office where they sat for the entire show even though he had so much to do. It’s the only fireworks display Steve ever missed, yet he was on property.”
Benko famously “had to make the tough calls when it came to the ballfields and weather issues,” often in the face of parents who urged the recreation director to green-light the athletics, regardless of field conditions.
“Those tended to be his trying moments as 500 parental opinions on a Saturday morning would lay it all on ‘Benks’ to open the fields,” Brown said. “He would respectfully say thank you for your comments but the fields will be closed today. He never backed down, always held his ground, they were his fields, they were his babies. Those were the days he earned his keep.”
Brown also shared how Benko earned two of his nicknames while enrolled as a student at the University of New Haven.
The first one was ‘Demo.”
“Steve felt compelled to put whatever limited construction skills he had to use and basically remodeled dorm rooms,” Brown recalled, drawing laughter from the gathering. “All it took was a mini sledge and a hammer. Steve called it an elective class in modern renovation. The New Haven dean of students termed it ‘vandalism,’ I believe. He had no idea how to put it back together, but did create a lot more space in the freshman dorm.”
He later earned the courtesy title ‘doctor’ and was known as “Dr. Demo,” Brown recalled. Benko was at a party where someone “had a pretty good gash on his knee” but refused proper medical attention and a trip to the hospital.
“Steve said, ‘I’ll be right back.’ He proceeded to sew his leg with a needle and thread and informed the patient, ‘I’m not pre med but that should last for a couple of hours,’ ” Brown said.
As other speakers said during the service, Benko’s first and true love was his own family, Brown said.
“The true beauty of life is not what you see on the outside but what you radiate from within, an intangible that has been his hallmark,” Brown said. “He is lucky to have been blessed with both. and blessed with a beautiful family he was: Sue, Lindsay, Steph and Peter, and siblings Dave and Elaine.”
Brown closed by saying, “So today, Steve, you played to a full house of the people you greatly impacted and are heading to Cooperstown as we retire a number for a Hall of Fame career. You will never be forgotten, but often be the subject of fond memories for the indelible mark you’ve left behind. You now mount the engine one more time, for a final firehouse salute, and a pass by your homestead on Douglas, as you get the green light to go home. Then you get to sit back at the lake and reflect on a life well done. Sipping on a bourbon with a lit stogie, and Butchie at your feet. If there’s a God in heaven, may he anoint you as fire chief. He may already have you reffing games, putting out fires and setting off a firework or two. You’ve undoubtedly found the kitchen, and are most likely making large vats of paella and soda bread for Mel, Steve, numerous families and others. And some day, you all may hear Steve whisper near something like, ‘Don’t worry, I’m good, just know I haven’t left you behind, I’ve only been traded to the angels.’ Heroes are remembered, but legends never die. Until then, with love from everyone, my friend: Thank you for being you, Steve Benko. God bless.”