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Wednesday, October 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:17 P.M.
George Benson, 85, championed Seattle's waterfront trolley
By Susan Gilmore
He might pick up litter, paint or change light bulbs on the trolleys, and he always came armed with doughnuts, which distressed the dieting conductors.
Today they're in tears after the death of their mentor.
"He was a wonderful, wonderful man," said Dollie Duckworth, a streetcar conductor. "He was always so caring."
Mr. Benson, a longtime member of the Seattle City Council and considered the father of Seattle's waterfront streetcar, died in his sleep Monday night at an assisted-living home in Edmonds. He was 85.
Mr. Benson served 20 years on the Seattle City Council before retiring in 1993. He was fundamental in bringing Seattle's waterfront trolley into existence. While a City Council member, he organized the effort for the historic tan-and-green, wood-paneled cars, urging his colleagues to support the idea.
Costing $3.3 million, the line began service May 29, 1982, along a 1.6-mile route. It was extended to its present nine stops in 1990.
Two years ago, during the 20th anniversary of the streetcar, the line was named after the former pharmacist who was one of the council's most beloved members.
When Mr. Benson was a young boy, he told his parents he wanted to be a streetcar conductor when he grew up. When he married Evelyn 59 years ago, he took her on a honeymoon to Oregon City, Ore., where the newlyweds rode the city's streetcar.
Even after he retired from the council, Mr. Benson was a weekly visitor to the streetcar-repair facility, where he could be found touching up the paint on the classic Australian cars.
Pharmacists by trade
Mr. Benson's wife, also a pharmacist, died two years ago. The couple operated Bensons' Mission Pharmacy on Capitol Hill for 46 years, with Mrs. Benson behind the counter. Children would come into the pharmacy to see Mr. Benson's trolley-car displays.
Mr. Benson was noted for solving large and small problems citizens had with their government. During construction of the downtown bus tunnel which former Mayor Charles Royer likened to living in the war zone of Beirut Mr. Benson spent every Friday afternoon walking the muddy plywood sidewalks to talk with the business owners along Third Avenue. When someone complained about a pothole, Mr. Benson would make sure it got filled.
"He was a wonderful liaison," said Royer. "He cared a lot about small-business people. He did more than talk about the disruptions, he spent his personal time and energy on it."
Former City Councilwoman Dolores Sibonga said Mr. Benson took abuse on his weekly walk on Third Avenue but never gave up.
She said Mr. Benson lost the first vote on the streetcar, but he persisted, "And look at the legacy he has left. You look at the streetcar and think how hard George worked. He was a gentle man in the best sense of the word."
Problem-solver on council
When the city was financially strapped in the early 1980s, Mr. Benson came to the office one weekend and sanded and varnished his desk to cut costs. It had been damaged when water leaked from the floor of the Mayor's Office above.
Royer said that after the roof was fixed he would sneak down to Mr. Benson's office, hide behind a file cabinet and shoot him with a water pistol, making Mr. Benson think the roof was still leaking. Royer first met Mr. Benson when the pharmacist would deliver medicine for Royer's children late at night.
"He was the best dad anyone could have wanted," said his daughter Amy Padgett of Everett.
Mr. Benson would take his three children down to the railroad tracks on Saturday mornings to look at trains, and he filled his garage with streetcar memorabilia.
Mr. Benson served in the Navy during World War II, and his son, George, would always pester him to tell war stories, including about the invasion of Iwo Jima, where he was stationed on a ship offshore.
He would later tell his council colleagues that when his ship would pull into port, other sailors would party while he would go off and ride railroad trams.
Mayor Greg Nickels, who has ordered city flags to be flown at half-staff for a week in Mr. Benson's honor, said he first met him when his family moved to Capitol Hill near Mr. Benson's pharmacy.
"When you were a kid on Capitol Hill, you knew the Bensons kept an eye on you," said Nickels. "He always knew where he could find our parents."
He said Mr. Benson's pharmacy delivered medicine and his van was fixed up to look like a transit bus.
"Most of the council saw themselves as policy-makers, and he saw himself as a problem-solver," said Nickels, who was a council aide when Mr. Benson served on the council. "He was one of those people who had a passion and was able to combine it with his career. He was one of the nicest men you'd ever meet."
Respect for everyone
Former City Councilwoman Jeanette Williams remembers trips the council would take to Europe to look at rail projects. While the other council members were talking to officials about long-range planning, Mr. Benson would disappear to the machine shop to see how things really worked.
Councilman Tom Rasmussen, a council aide when Mr. Benson was on the council, said Mr. Benson was one of the more-conservative members, yet he was the first to have an openly gay administrative assistant, Cal Anderson.
"That was an example of George's great respect toward everyone," said Rasmussen. "His overarching respect for the individual was so remarkable about him."
Former Metro Transit Director Rick Walsh remembers the time when Mr. Benson, a member of the Metro Council, was hearing complaints from Eastside residents about changes to bus service.
Mr. Benson picked up Walsh early one morning and drove him to the English Hills neighborhood. He watched as people boarded the buses, he counted passengers, he watched schoolchildren walk along the street.
When the bus service came up at the next council meeting, Mr. Benson said, "Your neighbors use the bus. The kids are well-behaved and walk on the sidewalks. So you'll have bus service," said Walsh. "And this was based on firsthand knowledge."
Every Christmas for years, Mr. Benson would give Walsh a bag of pecans, dropping by his office to deliver them. Mr. Benson said his church sold them as a fund-raiser and he bought bags to give to his friends.
"Every year, I got my pecans," said Walsh. "He was one of the most personable, dedicated, down-to-earth people you'd ever want to meet and a great friend."
Mr. Benson was a longtime member of First Covenant Church and the Lions Club. In later years, said his son, he became an avid gardener and his backyard would burst with raspberries.
Besides his son, George, and daughter Amy Padgett, Mr. Benson is survived by daughter Ann Hekkanen of South Pender Island, B.C.; and three granddaughters.
Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or email@example.com
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