‘Tireless Caring, Devotion and Love’: Friends Remember Steve Benko; Town Renames Waveny Pool in His Honor


Rec Director Steve Benko at the New Canaan Family Fourth 2015 at Waveny. Credit: Michael Dinan

Bea Watkins got to know Steve Benko at New Canaan High School in the late-1960s, and for the last 11 years has worked for him as office manager of the town’s Recreation Department.

L-R: Francesca Segalas, Steve Benko, Jim Bach, Tiger Mann and Keith Simpson. Photo Credit: Charlie Hobbs

There at the Rec offices in Waveny House, they often reminisced about mutual friends, parties and weddings, as well as Watkins’s brother, Lem, who’d worked for Benko one summer years ago.

“I have always been in awe of Steve’s work ethic and proud to be on his team,” Watkins told NewCanaanite.com in an email when asked for her thoughts on Benko. “He always took such pride in everything he and our crew has had to accomplish for the residents in terms of activities, programs, and facilities. With the recent influx of new residents who continue to voice how astonished they are with all that the Recreation Department and the town has to offer, I know that it is largely due to the hard work and effort of Steve.”

Steve Benko, Rona Siegel and Steve Dayton. Contributed

Calling Benko “Mr. New Canaan,” Watkins remembered her friend as singularly passionate about the town and what it offers.

“I always enjoyed sharing thoughts and ideas with Steve and a good argument was exciting as well,” she said. “More times than not our arguments ended with a win-win and a smile. Monday morning often found Steve across the hall in the Rec office sharing how he spent his weekend and the yummy recipes that he prepared. Cooking and creating dishes was high on his list of ways to make people happy. A great cook he was. Every day now is a sad day without Steve our team leader. We all miss him. I will always remember him fondly and most especially as my longtime friend.  Rest in peace dear friend, you so deserve it.”

Signs at the entrances to many public parks in New Canaan have been draped in black, following the passing of Steve Benko on Feb. 12, 2022. This photo of the Lapham Road sign for Waveny Pool taken Feb. 16, 2022. Credit: Michael Dinan

Benko died Feb. 12 following a brief battle with cancer. He was 71.

News of his passing has reverberated throughout New Canaan and among New Canaanites past and present, drawing expressions of gratitude for what Benko contributed to the community—and the commensurate, immeasurable loss—from those whose lives he touched through five tireless decades of kindness, expertise, generosity and hard work.

This week, the Parks & Recreation Commission, Board of Selectmen and Town Council each voted unanimously in favor of renaming the community pool at Waveny the “Steve Benko Pool” in honor and recognition of the deceased. 

Locals enjoying the sun at Waveny Pool. Credit: Olivia Oldham

Created 20 years ago, the pool was one of the projects that Benko had been most proud of as recreation director, Town Council Chair Steve Karl said during the selectmen meeting Wednesday. 

Benko could be found at 5 a.m. removing gum wrappers from the skimmers from the pool, which was “his baby,” Karl said.

“We will name this pool and.a century from now it will be called the Steve Benko Pool,” Karl said. “It is the right thing to do. It feels right.”

In the library of Waveny House beneath the portrait of Lewis Lapham: Rose Scott Rothbart, Arianne Faber Kolb, Robert E. Mallozzi, Lisa Lloyd, Christopher Lloyd, Mimi Findlay, Steve Benko, Amy Weber Reid, Rebecca Stedman.

Asked separately for his thoughts on Benko, Karl told the New Canaanite that his friend “impacted our town in ways too numerous to begin to count.”

“We all know the big picture details- volunteer fireman and chief, decades of coaching and mentoring, setting up at Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Family Fourth, Breakfast with Santa, Easter Egg hunts, Caffeine and Carburetors, and Caroling on Christmas Eve, encyclopedic knowledge of 06840, dedicated son, husband and father,” Karl said. 

Front Row L-R: Tom Stadler, Win Goodrich, Flo Carbone, Tucker Murphy, Doug Richardson. Back Row L-R: Steve Benko, Chris Gruseke, Aaron Liefland, Art Berry, Bill Flynn. 2019 Volunteer Awards

“We have also watched and benefited from his nearly 50 years of caring for every inch of our parks, buildings and fields and being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week no matter what the calendar says about weather or holidays. He has been the ultimate fixer of all things broken, repairer of the unrepairable and the guy who said ‘No’ when he had to in order to preserve the parks he so passionately loves. If you live in New Canaan and have taken a walk on a trail, kicked a ball, swung a bat or racquet, had a picnic, watched fireworks, taken a swim, played on a playground, or even flown a kite, chances are Steve Benko had things prepared and ready for you when you arrived. He was one of the most amazing individuals I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with. There is no amount of words that could ever begin to describe his tireless caring, devotion and love for our community. He was one of a kind.”

Art For Animals committee with NCPD officer David Rivera and K9 Apollo. L-R: Jeff McCullagh, Stephanie Conti, Rona Siegel, Amy Allen, officer Rivera and Apollo, Hilary Wittmann, Siobhan Sack, Allyson Halm, Sue Bird, Holly Schulz, Jana Harvey. Not pictured: Steve Benko, Gaby Beecher, Marcos Torno, Michael Dinan, Ruth Bagshaw, Kit Devereaux

New Canaan High School Athletic Director Jay Egan said the Benko “fire and foremost, was a good man” and that he was “New Canaan to his core.”

“He had a deep pride in everything that people in New Canaan value,” Egan said.

And Benko’s contributions, though some of them were public and known, largely were behind-the-scenes tasks that he took on with no recognition. 

“Steve would walk the turf fields in the morning picking up water bottles that people had left on the field, and spare clothing, just so that when it came time to use the fields again in the afternoons, they looked the way they should,” Egan said. “And the way he cared for the pool, he cared for it every day. He was physically helping to make sure the pool was running correctly. It was like all the New Canaan athletic fields, he was the homeowner. This was all Steve’s domain to keep it. He had such pride in keeping everything looking so nice and operating properly.”

Steve Benko delivered the address at the Veterans Day ceremony held Nov. 11, 2019 at God’s Acre. Credit: Michael Dinan

Though Egan sometimes phoned Benko very early or very late to get something done, “he never made you feel like you were putting him out.”

“You never felt uncomfortable when you asked him to do something and he came to do it,” Egan said. “He was always happy to do it. The last thing he and I did together he did all the set-ups for the Thanksgiving Day game [the Turkey Bowl]. And it was cold. He was out there putting the fences up and he didn’t have to do that. He just wanted it to work well. He wanted everything to go well, and he rolled up his sleeve and did it, and never complained about anything.”

New Canaan’s Steve Benko was handed a 1939 NCHS yearbook at the Transfer Station recently. It had been discarded there. His dad is a member of the senior class, pictured within. Credit: Michael Dinan

Benko was inducted into the FCIAC Hall of Fame (see video below) for a number of reasons, including his close involvement in setting up the county championships of the high school cross-country season at Waveny each fall, as well as for his years in serving as an official in soccer and basketball.

Benko once told Egan that his own grandfather used to work on a farm that included the property where the New Canaan YMCA now stands—an insight into how his friend had seen the town and the way it evolved, Egan said.

Benko himself attended St. Aloysius School prior to New Canaan High School, where he graduated in 1968. One of his first-grade classmates at St. A’s was Rick Franco, a big fan of Benko’s famous Irish soda bread who noted that his friend’s uncle was the legendary NCHS coach Bill Murphy (his mother Madeline’s brother). Benko’s and Franco’s fathers also had graduated from NCHS the same year (1939—see article here).

The Town Council on July 20, 2016 recognized the members of the New Canaan Family Fourth Committee during its regular meeting at Town Hall. L-R (front row): Win Goodrich, Steve Parrett, Doug Richardson, Scott Cluett, Suzanne Jonker, Steve Benko, Rob Mallozzi and Tom Stadler. Credit: Michael Dinan

Benko played soccer under Murphy, and the Benko family had an ice rink their backyard on Orchard Drive, Franco said. (His friend also had “the best Lionel train set in town” when they were kids, Franco said.)

Benko’s uncle, Lewis Benko, died while serving in World War II—a U.S. Marine killed in action during the assault on Iwo Jima in February 1945. He’s one of 38 New Canaan men killed during the war, and is honored at the Gold Star Walk at Mead Park, along the eastern edge of the pond.

“They were New Canaan people from top to bottom,” Franco said. “A New Canaan family all the way.”

Rick Ericson and Steve Benko helping prepare for the annual Old Timers clambake, 2014. Terry Dinan photo

Benko began serving with New Canaan Fire Co. 1 in 1973, and was its chief for all but one year from 1980 to 1995.

The fire company’s current president, Rob Mallozzi, said, “Make no mistake, in Steve Benko’s passing we have lost so much more than our neighbor and friend. Steve Benko was New Canaan’s ‘go-to’ guy. Steve was so many things to so many of us and so intertwined with all things New Canaan: He was our historian, event planner, care taker, instructor, problem solver, protector, chef, role model, work horse, referee—and that’s just the start. We were so fortunate to claim Steve as New Canaan’s own. The term ‘one in a million’ doesn’t even come close to describing our friend Steve. He was our everything. And in so many ways, our community’s collective consciousness.”

Steve Benko with a freshly prepared Irish soda bread, on March 15, 2016.

Sven Englund said that Benko had been two years ahead of him at school, and that he got to know him after college after joining the Fire Company as a young volunteer. 

“Steve was a lieutenant and trained me,” Englund said. “So my first night in the Fire Company, we had a working fire at Cherry Street East.  I followed him up the aerial ladder on Ladder 3, operated by Hank Landi, to watch how windows are vented without an axe but using a New Yorker style helmet to punch out the glass. Then his walkie talkie fell out of his pocket three stories to the concrete sidewalk. He looked at me and said, ‘Uh oh.’ We climbed down. He picked up the pieces and jammed them together and called Joe Hussey on Engine 1 and got a response back, ‘Waddaya want Steve?’ Steve looks at me and says, ‘Works first, every time.’ Like the old Timex commercials. Chief Tiani didn’t replace the radio. For months it was held together with electrical tape.”

Black bunting has been hung over the door of the New Canaan Fire Department following the passing of Steve Benko. Feb. 12, 2022.

Englund said he learned from Benko “as best I could how to be a good fireman,” and that his friend was a “leader and teacher” who was “instrumental” in improving techniques and technology in the Fire Company.

“One night he told us the town was going to do 4th of July fireworks again after we’d stopped doing them down at Kiwanis,” Englund recalled. “It was going to be at Waveny and he needed help. So a bunch of showed up a little after 6 a.m. and that’s how we all started the tradition to set up and tear down every year for over 40 years. I’ll always see Steve in my mind as we finished up a little after midnight at the kitchen entrance to Waveny. We’re all tired, dirty and sweat soaked with a Bud can sitting on tail gates doing the ‘remember when’ thing and telling tales. Steve would be there in his work boots, white socks, khaki shorts and old polo shirt with a cigar and handing out half melted ice cream sandwiches. A perfect moment in my life with my friend.”

A 2014 Breakfast with Santa event at Waveny: L-R: Tina Feldman (Young Women’s League), George Baez, Santa Claus, Steve Karl. Missing but said to be in the area: Steve Benko. Contributed photo

Englund added, “There’s a million Steve stories because he was always there at critical times in our lives. We could go on forever and probably will make the attempt after his funeral. Someone should be there with a recorder in all the circles that will form to catch a little more of our memories and praise for Steve.”

A memorial service—to be live-streamed here—will be held at 11 a.m. on Feb. 24 at the First Presbyterian Church of New Canaan, 178 Oenoke Ridge Road, New Canaan CT 06840. Family and friends may call from 4 to 8 p.m. on Feb. 23 at the Hoyt Funeral Home, 199 Main Street, New Canaan, CT 06840.

Steve Benko FCIAC Hall of Fame Documentary from Norwalk DMCA on Vimeo.

8 thoughts on “‘Tireless Caring, Devotion and Love’: Friends Remember Steve Benko; Town Renames Waveny Pool in His Honor

  1. Michael,

    You really outdid yourself with this tribute to Steve. Endearing photos and wonderful article. You truly captured the essence of Steve. Thank you!

  2. Michael, thank you for writing such a wonderful tribute to Steve. And a big thank you to the town officials, especially Steve Karl, in renaming the Pool in Steve Benko’s honor.

  3. What a wonderful article, Michael!! How appropriate to name Waveny Pool to the Steve Benko Pool since it was one of his babies. Steve was so selfless and took pride in all he did for our community. I never saw him without a smile on his face. His devotion to this community shines in what we have today in our parks and recreation programs because of Steve. He is irreplaceable. Condolences to his family.

  4. I worked with Steve every day for two years on the Mead Playground Renovation in the late ’90s. From there, we worked together on the Founding Families Campaign to determine need for a community pool. Steve was a class act and a fount of knowledge about all things New Canaan. I thought I saw him doing his thing near the bandstand on Christmas Eve, at the Carol Sing. God bless you and your family, Steve. Thank you, Michael, for capturing Steve’s work ethic and contributions so thoroughly.

  5. Thank you so much for this lovely tribute to Steve, Mike. He truly was one in a million and New Canaan will benefit from his legacy forevermore.

  6. The Benkos and Francos have known each other for over 100 years. Growing up in the 50s & 60s we were all friends because our parents were friends. All the Benkos are solid gold and true New Canaanites.
    Jobs tend to find you and this job found Steve, he was made for it. Many times he put his foot down to save the town from going down the wrong path. No one could buck him.
    I will miss waving to him as he drives around town in his white pick up truck on his way to keep an eye on things.
    If New Canaan didn’t have a Guardian Angel before, it has one now.

  7. What a lovely tribute to an amazing man and steward of New Canaan. I can’t think of a better name than Steve Benko Pool.

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