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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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).
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.