Captain Fred Benko
Fred Michael Benko
Fred_CE_wheelhouse

Santa Barbara’s iconic Captain Fred Benko passed away at home early Wednesday morning due to long illness. Captain Fred’s warm heart, generosity and wry sense of humor were part of the Santa Barbara Maritime culture for over forty years. 

Fred Benko was born in Barberton, Ohio, graduated from Ellet High School in 1957, and, in 1959, after one semester at Akron University, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. As a Marine, one of his assignments was as a hurricane forecaster in Cherry Point, North Carolina, where he'd work 24-hour shifts in exchange for 72 hours off. Being a folk music fan (and The Kingston Trio in particular), during the downtime, he picked up a guitar and a ukulele, and with two other friends, formed a band called “The Beachers Three.” The trio serenaded in bars up and down the Chesapeake Bay, playing for beer and tips.

From there, he was shipped to Iwakuni, Japan, where he spent most of the rest of his time in the Marine Corps. Upon release from active duty in July of ’63, he returned to Cherry Point, singing folk music from Virginia Beach to Jekyll Island, at the Top of the Walk in Washington, D.C., and introduced Joan Baez at the Cellar Door in Georgetown. The Washington, D.C. exposure led to an invitation from the U.S. government to perform at a food and agriculture exhibition in Europe, where his show was halted when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

That brought him back to the United States, where he hung up his guitar to work as a salesman for Pfizer Laboratories. After receiving an MBA from George Washington University he transferred to the West Coast as a field manager and lived near Diamond Bar. Pfizer offered him a raise and a promotion if he would return to the East Coast, but Fred had learned to love California, so he quit his job and began the career that would take him through the rest of his life: as a sea captain.

A classified ad in the Los Angeles Times caught his eye: “Seagoing business for sale.” He called and discovered they were selling H&M Landing in San Diego. He couldn’t afford that, but he ended up purchasing the 50-year lease on what was then the John Dory Building, in Santa Barbara.

He sold the big house in Diamond Bar and, with family in tow, rented a two-bedroom apartment in Santa Barbara from which to run his new business. Before long he owned a string of seven boats, one of which was the original 88-foot Condor he designed and built himself in 1979. He also ran a lucrative tackle shop below his office.

Fred steadily grew his sport fishing and charter boat business, and SEA Landing - which Fred developed and then sold in 1985 - went on to become one of the biggest landings on the West Coast. Though on the verge of retirement, in 2002 he started construction on the Condor Express, and, in February 2003, launched the speedy, twin-hulled boat and changed the face of whale watching on the Central Coast, bringing people to whales in just 45 minutes compared to the previously required three hours.

Along the way, Fred - who had a naturalist’s instinct and a scientist’s curiosity - became an expert of the Santa Barbara Channel and the health of the nearby ocean. He was a self-taught engineer, a first-rate captain, and an inveterate tinkerer whose heart and soul dwelled in the sea.

His friends and acquaintances included award-winning cinematographer Mike deGruy, Heal The Ocean founder Hillary Hauser, deep-sea adventurer and environmental watchdog Jean-Michel Cousteau, chimpanzee pioneer Jane Goodall, oceanographer Sylvia Earle, Wildlife Behavioral Biologist and Director of POD (Protect Our Dolphins) of Santa Barbara Toni Frohoff, Ph.D., and many, many others including documentary filmmakers from BBC, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Cascadia Research, Scripps Institute, and others. All sought Fred’s input regularly.

The house Fred shared with his wife of 29 years, Hiroko, sits high above the Santa Barbara Harbor; their master bedroom features a view of the Sea Landing, where the Condor Express is berthed and where it all began for him.

Fred was a generous supporter/member of a number of organizations, including El Pescatores Club, the Santa Barbara Zoo, Los Festers Dance Club, Santa Barbara Maritime Museum Advisory Council, Los Rancheros Pobres, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, Pacific Fishery Management Council, and the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera, for which he often sang on stage. He was named a National Environmental Hero, recognized as a Whale Hero by the American Cetacean Society, honored by the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network, designated as a Local Hero by The Santa Barbara Independent, and received the Stewardship Award from the Channel Island National Marine Sanctuary.

He leaves behind his wife, Hiroko Benko, his daughter Dody Livingston, granddaughter Hunter, his son, Mathew Benko, grandsons Tyler and Brennan, mother, Dorothy Benko, sisters Kathy Trares and Diane Morgan, and nieces and nephews in Ohio.

SB News-Press: Condor Cruises Owner Fred Benko Dies
Mr. Benko watches as passengers board the Condor Express for whale-watching in 2003. Photo by Steve Malone/News-Press File

By Marilyn McMahon and Jordan Ecarma, News-Press, Staff Writers
Sunday, March 10, 2013

One of Santa Barbara's legendary waterfront characters, Fred Benko, founder of SEA Landing and Condor Cruises, died of an undisclosed illness Thursday at his home in Santa Barbara.

Mr. Benko, 73, had been in declining health for several months.

Although sad to hear the news about her longtime friend, Hillary Hauser, executive director of Heal the Ocean, said, "Fred Benko was larger than life. He sure had a good time while he was alive. He was always singing, whooping and hollering. That was Fred."

Part of the Santa Barbara Maritime culture for more than 40 years, Mr. Benko was known for his "warm heart, generosity and wry sense of humor."

Many Santa Barbarans think of Mr. Benko in his role as skipper and owner of the Condor Express, which was used for public and private whale-watching trips and other events, such as educational excursions for students.

"He really brought Santa Barbara into the whole concept of enjoying the coastline with his party cruises on the Condor Express," said Ms. Hauser. "The happiest I ever saw him was when he sighted a blue whale jumping out of the water during one of his whale-watching expeditions that brought visitors here from all over the world."

The man of the sea could also be found onstage. Describing her friend as a Renaissance man with an "incredible voice," Ms. Hauser told the News-Press that few people knew Mr. Benko was a founder of the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera.

"One of his more memorable roles was that of Dick Deadeye in 'H.M.S. Pinafore,'" she said.

Born July 6, 1939, in Barberton, Ohio, Mr. Benko graduated from Ellet High School in 1957, according to a statement from his family.

After attending Akron University for one semester he joined the Marines, working as a hurricane forecaster in Cherry Point, N.C., in one of his assignments.

During his time in the Marines, the folk music fan played a guitar and ukulele. He and two friends formed a band, The Beachers Three, and played for beer and tips in bars up and down Chesapeake Bay.

Mr. Benko was later stationed in Iwakuni, Japan, and released from active duty in July 1963.

After his discharge, he returned to Cherry Point and continued to play music. A highlight of his folk career was opening for singer-songwriter Joan Baez at the Cellar Door in Georgetown, D.C.

Mr. Benko hung up his guitar to begin working with Pfizer laboratories as a pharmaceutical salesman. After earning a master's of business administration degree from George Washington University, he was transferred to Southern California in 1969. At 32, he became the company's youngest regional manager at the time.

Mr. Benko later was offered a raise and a promotion when the company wanted him to return to the East Coast, but he enjoyed California too much.

He stayed and began his career as a sea captain, before long owning seven boats, one of which was the original 88-foot Condor that he designed and built himself in 1979.

Mr. Benko grew his sports fishing and charter boat business and developed SEA Landing, which became one of the largest landings on the West Coast.

In 2003, he built and launched the Condor Express, a speedy, twin-hulled boat that draws thousands of visitors from around the world.

The whale-watching enthusiast was passionate about conservation. In 2004, Mr. Benko received a Wildlife Sanctuary Award from the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network as a founding member of the Pacific Marine Conservation Society and the Los Marineros Project, a marine education program for fifth-graders.

A year later, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary recognized him for his "devotion to protecting whales and educating the public about them."

In a News-Press business article published in 2003, Mr. Benko noted that the population of California gray whales had been only about 8,000 in 1973, a number that jumped to 20,000 to 25,000 by 2003.

A philanthropist who was active in the community, Mr. Benko was a member of many local organizations, including the Santa Barbara Zoo, Los Fiesteros Dance Club, National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, Santa Barbara Maritime Museum Advisory Council, Los Rancheros Pobres and Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Survivors include Mr. Benko's wife of 29 years, Hiroko; mother Dorothy Benko; daughter Dody Livingston; son Matthew Benko; sisters Kathy Trares and Diane Morgan; granddaughter Hunter Livingston; and grandsons Tyler and Brennan Benko.

A memorial will be held 3 to 5 p.m. Friday at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, the Santa Barbara Zoo and Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care.

Source: Complete article with photos at: Santa Barbara News-Press website.

Life of Fred Benko and his work with CASA

The following is an excerpt taken from an article written in the Monteceito Journal, April 12, 2007, By Thedim Fiste, titled "Casa and the Club."

Fred Benko was drawn to CASA partly – or chiefly – because of his own early life. His mother was a divorced single mom who worked as a “barrage balloon” seamstress at a B.F. Goodrich plant during WWII. “During that era,” Fred relates, “she really couldn’t afford to keep her kid, so I got shopped around a lot. There wasn’t a big foster care network at that time.” He lived with aunts and grandparents, “whoever could afford another mouth to feed.” He says it didn’t bother him because he liked most of the people he stayed with. He spent a couple of summers on a muck farm as a kid weeding radish fields with up to 15 other kids. “It was neat,” Fred insists. “These people would take in twelve, fifteen kids and they’d feed us –mashed potatoes, biscuits and gravy, three meals a day – and we’d work in the fields.”

He says that as the smallest kid at a table of twelve with only one plate of mashed potatoes in the middle, one has either got to be the strongest kid at the table or one must use guile to get one’s share. “This is not unlike the modern-day shelters,” Maria observes. “Unless you’ve never had it, that experience stays with you for the rest of your life.”

“There’s a reason that those of us who get involved with CASA get involved,” Fred adds. “Part of it is because we want to help the kids that are here and a lot of that is because we have an idea what they’re going through. And, I’ve been there. I was not abandoned by my mother. I was always in contact with her but I didn’t live with her on a day-to-day basis. I did not think I had a bad upbringing as a child,” he continues. “The only bad thing I had was an abusive stepfather, so anywhere else I was, was just fine with me. I had a great time. I really think these kids have it a lot more serious than I did.” Maria, who was orphaned as a teenager also knows what it’s like to be thrust into the court system. She says her Midwest upbringing gave her the stamina to survive, but feels that kind of cultural foundation is missing from most of these kids’ lives.

Fred became a camp counselor at Camp Y-Noah in Akron Ohio – where the soapbox derby takes place – when he was about 14. He remembers that many kids would complain of being homesick while at camp, and says that was something he could not relate to at all. He always looked forward to being shopped around to other homes. Fred’s favorite was Aunt Mildred, but there was Aunt Tessie in Lima who took pretty good care of him, and there were others too.

The Larry Sutton Story

Until he was adopted by his stepfather, Fred’s name was Larry Sutton, his real father’s name. “My [maternal] grandfather’s name was Fred – Fritz – and everybody always called me ‘Little Freddy,’ he explains. “It was only the first day of school that anybody ever called me ‘Larry.’ I would tell the teacher, ‘No, no. Call me Freddy.’”

Nearly two decades after World War II, Fred’s mother enrolled at Akron University and earned her degree, becoming a teacher at the age of 40. Both she and her son, coincidentally, attended college at the same time. Fred attended Akron University for one semester but switched to Wooster in Ohio for a couple of years. He joined the Marines at the advice of a judge, and when he got out, found a job with Pfizer Labs who sent him to George Washington University, where he received an MBA. Afterwards, he was sent to California as a district manager for Pfizer and rose to become regional manager.

Fred never saw the ocean until he was on his way to Parris Island Marine boot camp in South Carolina in 1959, but he’d always had boats, he says, having grown up around lakes and was an avid fisherman. “After I got out of boot camp,” he relates, “they sent me up to Cherry Point [North Carolina] and I started commercial fishing.” He had a dentist friend who had a boat and the two of them fished on weekends. The dentist let Fred fish during the week when he was busy with his patients.

Fred claims he had the best job in the Marine Corps; he was a hurricane forecaster in North Carolina and later, a typhoon forecaster in Japan. He says a hurricane is the same as a typhoon, just with a different name. “In Australia, they call [hurricanes] Willy Willy,” he says, as if we understood. Fred says he and his team “flew right into the hurricanes,” because in order to really follow storms in those days, “you needed to stay on top of them all the time – this was before satellites. You just had to voodoo it in,” he laughs. Apparently, to be effective at hurricane and typhoon or Willy Willy tracking, it was best to work a 24-hour shift, so he did – and then received 72 hours off before the next shift. He admits that storms were difficult to predict in Japan “because China and Russia sent us no information. Most of your weather comes from the west, so if you didn’t know what was coming at you, you couldn’t tell what was over here. It really was voodoo.”

He was a Marine, just “in time to be trained for the Bay of Pigs invasion,” he says. “I was in the air at the Marine Corps station in Puerto Rico ready to be dropped in [to Cuba] and then Kennedy pulled us back.”

Fred The Folk Singer

In addition to his Marine Corps experience, his career with Pfizer and his life as captain of the Condor and Condor Express, Fred experienced a short musical detour.

“Not many people know this,” he says, “but when I was a kid of about seven or eight years old, I was taken into the Harvey Firestone Chorus at the Akron Ohio Episcopalian Church that he built. It was a two-hundred-and-twenty-five-voice all-male chorus. We recorded; we toured. I started as a little kid with a trained voice, so when that happens you end up having a pretty good voice even when you’re an adult.” Anyone who heard Fred sing at the most recent Red Feather Ball now understands where and how he learned mastery of stage presence and voice projection, and why he looked so darned happy and comfortable on stage.

“I used to be a folk singer,” Fred says matter of factly. “I had a group called ‘The Beachers Three’ and we used to steal songs from the Kingston Trio and the Limelighters until we started writing our own songs.” The Beachers Three were all in the Marine Corps at the time so when Fred’s two singing mates were shipped out that left him on his own. He played the guitar and sang up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina to Georgia and northern Florida. “I was there about the same time as Jimmy Buffet was and we were on the same circuit and would occasionally run into one another,” Fred recalls. “We’re not friends, but we did meet, and I’m still a fan.”

Fred was playing at The Cellar Door in Washington, D.C. when a man walked in, announced that he was Connie B. Gay and wanted Fred to join an ‘Americana’ music tour of Europe he was putting together; they had jazz, blues, folk, and country/western. Fred said ‘sure,’ and ended up on stage in Amsterdam the night John Kennedy was shot. Immediately upon the announcement of the news, the show was stopped and the entire ensemble was put on a plane and flown back to Washington D.C. “As we were driving back to the airport,” Fred recalls with wonderment, “every single house had a black flag flying from the window. Every house that we passed had those black flags because John Kennedy had been shot.” He wondered whether that would happen today.

Back to California

After his folk-singing career and Marine tour of duty ended, Fred stayed with Pfizer until they asked him to return to New York City as a vice president. By then, he had his boat, and he was diving and fishing, so he declined. “I just couldn’t do it,” he says. “I just didn’t want to live in New York City, or work in New York City and live in Connecticut and commute for two hours a day. I had kids. So I quit Pfizer; they were amazed that I would leave, but I did and started Sea Landing.” During this time, Fred’s wife, Patty, died of cancer.

Hiroko had just moved to Montecito from Pasadena when she and Fred met in early 1985 on his boat during a party cruise. “She came out again, and then again,” Fred says with a smile. The two were married in September of that same year.

Hiroko is, among other things, an artist of some note and is currently busy creating an auction item to sell during this year’s CASA event. Maria believes it will prove to be “one of the monumental art projects offered for this particular event.” Hiroko has created platters upon which her stencils will be painted by the children. “I expect these will be works of art far beyond anybody’s expectations,” Maria says.

View the Complete article at: http://www.montecitojournal.net/archive/13/15/921/

Benko Receives NMSF Stewardship Award
CINMS 25th Fred Award_crp

October, 2005: Santa Barbara, CA – U.S. Congresswoman Lois Capps, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, marine business pioneer Captain Fred Benko, and Santa Barbara civic leaders Barry and Jean Schuyler were honored with National Marine Sanctuary Foundation (NMSF) awards during a gala tribute dinner to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. World renowned ocean explorer and NMSF Trustee Jean-Michel Cousteau served as Master of Ceremonies for the gala, October 7th, one of several recent events marking the sanctuary’s silver anniversary.

Marine business pioneer and naturalist Captain Fred Benko was honored with a NMSF Stewardship Award for his devotion to protecting whales and educating the public about these magnificent marine mammals. "It’s a great honor to receive this recognition from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, especially in the company of such distinguished honorees,” said Benko. “Marine science education is a critical need in our community and I hope this effort helps spark funding for these important endeavors."

Complete press release available at: http://www.nmsfocean.org/article/2008/12/10/channel-islands-celebrates-25th-anniversary

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