This is the speech / eulogy I gave one week ago today in honor of my father Whit Benson at his memorial service on Wednesday, October 12, 2011. He had died a few days earlier on Saturday, October 8, 2011. Large parts of it are based on the article I had previously written about him for the newsletter of the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club.
My father Julian Whitfield Benson – known to his family and friends as Whit, Dad, or Grandpa – lost his long battle with pulmonary fibrosis early Saturday morning – a few months shy of his 80th birthday. It was a terrible illness that slowly stole the breath from his body, and forced him to endure 7 years of suffering.
And yet even as he journeyed slowly towards his own fate, Whit Benson and those closest to him were graced with a gift that few families are ever privileged with. He knew that he was dying. We knew that he was dying. I had 7 years to get to know my father in a far deeper way than most sons ever know their father. After he was diagnosed, we spent thousands of hours together, and I estimate that we enjoyed well over 500 walks together. We walked until he could no longer walk, and we talked until his very last day on this earth. Dad taught me how to be a man of integrity, and he instilled in me a love for nature so strong that it can never be broken.
It was miraculous that either of us lived to enjoy such a close relationship. We nearly died together in the summer of 1993 when Dad and I went on an overnight backpacking trip to Cumberland Island, the southern-most island off the Georgia coast. After a day of hiking along the beach, we decided to go swimming before turning inland to find a campsite.
Being a very strong and fit triathlete, I didn’t think twice about the strong rip currents, and played joyfully among them as they swept me to and fro near the beach. I was a 22 year old kid who wasn’t thinking about consequences. My father – so strong in many other ways – was not a strong swimmer, and he entered the water unaware of the dangers therein.
Moments later, I looked around and was unable to see my Dad in the deep surf. When I finally spotted him about 50 feet away, he was in the clutches of a rip current that was pulling him out to sea. My father was drowning.
With a burst of speed, I swam to him, and when I reached him, he was terrified and tried to climb on top of my body. As he pushed me under, I grabbed his hips and swiveled his body, coming up behind him with my arm around his neck – holding his head out of the water. I yelled into his ears, “Dad stop! I’ve got you! Stop! I’ve got you!” To my amazement, he stopped fighting and placed his life in my hands. I yelled “Kick! Kick! Kick!”, and still holding him, began side-stroking as hard as I could towards the ever-receding shore. Despite our best efforts, we were being swept out to sea, and I made a conscious decision that even if I could have saved myself, that I was going to stay with my father and that we would die together.
I could not let him die. It would have been a tragic and premature end to a truly remarkable life.
Born in Atlanta on May 1, 1932 during the depression and raised during World War II, my father’s family moved to the mountainous countryside just outside Ashville, North Carolina just after the War. At the age of 13, young Whit fell in love with the outdoors and spent as much time as possible hiking through the backcountry. He lived there for less than a year, but when he left to return to Atlanta, he took with him a newfound passion that would last a lifetime.
He joined the Boy Scouts, taking every opportunity to hike and camp, and eventually earned the highest rank of Eagle Scout. Along the way, he finished high school and began his undergraduate studies in Electrical Engineering at Georgia Tech. In the Explorer Scouts, he began hiking with his friends Frank Gordon and Norman Batho. The three Explorer Scouts were finishing up an 80-mile hike in September 1949 from Wesser Bald in North Carolina to Tray Gap in Georgia, when they met up with a hiking party from the GATC led by Jim Proctor that was hiking from Dick’s Creek Gap to Tray Gap. The Explorer Scouts were a perfect fit for the GATC, and soon thereafter Jim Proctor asked my father to join the GATC. Young Whit was only 17 years old, but he said that nobody ever asked him his age. He quickly acquired a reputation as a hard-worker and a tough hiker.
1950 started off with a bang as Dad and the others that were known within the Club as “the younger contingent” rebuilt the Tray Mountain shelter over a period of weeks. This was followed in June 1950 by a work trip that lasted nearly a full week. The work party, consisting of Dad Benson, Norman Batho, Jim Proctor, and two guests, left Lake Winfield Scott and hiked up into Slaughter Gap. From there they headed north on the AT doing trail maintenance the entire way. They eventually made it to Addis Gap where they decided that they’d had enough and ceased operations, hiking out to Dick’s Creek Gap.
Larry Freeman had been GATC President from 1947-1948, and was credited with rebuilding the Club after its near-demise during World War II. Today he is best known as the namesake of the Freeman Trail around Blood Mountain, an honor he richly deserved as one of the giants in our Club’s history. In 1951, Larry asked Dad to join him on a hike in the Smokies from Davenport Gap to Newfound Gap. During that excursion, Larry and Dad became the best of friends and remained so for 19 years until Larry’s death in September 1970. In the years since, when asked to recount his experiences with Larry through the 1950s and 1960s, a curious half-smile would come across Dad’s face and he began by noting that, “Larry was a bit eccentric…” He would go on to recall that Larry was an extraordinarily secretive person who never let anyone know where he lived, and was only reachable via a post office box; no telephone number or home address. They would arrange by mail to meet each other at various locations to depart for their excursions. Once complete, Larry would have Dad drive him into Atlanta and drop him off on an apparently random street corner – each time a different place. This was simply the normal modus operandi with Larry.
In 1953, Dad and Larry produced the first GATC yearbook in the basement of my grandmother’s home.
Dad graduated from Georgia Tech with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and entered the U.S. Navy as an officer in February 1954. In the Navy, he had the opportunity to work with several early computers. These experiences would lead to an entire career working with and programming computers as an engineer.
During his time in the U.S. Navy, he was stationed at various locations outside of Georgia, and was therefore unable to participate in GATC activities. However, he and Larry would arrange excursions to various places while Dad was on leave.
About this time, Dad met Dorothy McCaleb, a mathematician, and they were married in October 1955. A year later, their first daughter Julia was born. After 4 years of service, Dad was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy as a Lieutenant in June 1957 and moved back to Atlanta. He started a career with Lockheed Georgia Company as an aeronautical engineer that would span over four decades. He programmed computer simulations of real-time flight conditions for the C-5 Galaxy, the C-130 Hercules, and the F-22 Raptor.
At the same time he started his career at Lockheed, he began his graduate studies in Electrical Engineering at Georgia Tech in the fall of 1957. He resumed his active participation in GATC activities, and quickly reestablished his credentials as a hard working outdoorsman with good instincts, and a tough hiker who frequently participated in or led backpacking trips and work trips. Over the next five years, he had two more daughters – Kathy and Holley, and earned his M.S. in Electrical Engineering. From 1964-1965 he held his first officer position in the GATC as the Club’s second Trails Supervisor.
The next few years were a roller coaster ride. Lockheed began building the largest airplane in the world – the C-5 Galaxy, and the number of hours required for his job nearly doubled. Then his wife died of a heart attack in January 1967, leaving Dad alone to raise his three young girls. A year later, Dad began dating Gale Whiten, a physicist and engineer at Lockheed, and they married a few months later in April 1968. Gale would quickly become an active member of the GATC, and soon prove herself an excellent outdoors person in her own right. They remained married for the rest of his life, and had two children together – my younger sister Alyssa and me.
After spending a year during 1971-1972 recovering from a major spinal fusion, a new side of Dad Benson began to emerge that would eventually revive his ironman image. He began holding offices on the Board of Directors, and his peers began regarding him as a knowledgeable, yet unassuming leader and an insightful administrator. He was the Membership Director in 1976, Vice President of Activities from 1977-1978, President from 1979-1980, and Trails Supervisor again from 1985-1986. He served for several years as a Director at Large. According to Joe Boyd and Rosalind Van Landingham, his 30 years of experience (by the late 70s) hiking and maintaining the Appalachian Trail in Georgia gave him a grasp of the pertinent issues that was exceptional by any standard. He knew what was on the ground – knew the entire Georgia AT so well that he was able to blend the nuances of policy with the realities of life on the Trail to the betterment of both.
During the mid to late 70s and into the 80s, Dad worked with a talented group of peers in the GATC that the rest of the Benson family thought of as his closest friends. “The Oldtimers” as they came to be called were tight then, and those that survive continue to be so. One friend in particular stood out, at least from the perspective of Dad’s family. That person was Joe Boyd, who passed away a few years ago. Joe & Helen Boyd joined the GATC in July 1975. Dad and Joe became close friends very quickly. Both were engineers at Lockheed, seasoned outdoorsmen, and tough hikers. They seemed to be cut from the same cloth, often seeming to think alike when considering various issues and problems, and Dad seemed to enjoy hiking with Joe in the same way he enjoyed hiking with Larry Freeman.
Dad, Gale, and the other “Oldtimers” have been on too many incredible excursions over the decades to name. As Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, they were literally rappelling for their lives off of the Grand Teton during a terrible lightning storm. In Glacier National Park, their group was caught high on the continental divide in a surprise blizzard. Joe Boyd managed to assist Dad out of a glacial crevasse in the Austrian Alps after Dad broke through the ice. Later in the Cascades, the group actually practiced rappelling into crevasses. There were three trips to the Bridger Wilderness in Wyoming, two trips to the San Juan Mountains in Colorado with their 14K foot peaks, and a trip across the entire Sierra Nevada mountain range that was concluded at the top of Mount Whitney. As I became old enough, I began joining my parents on some of these long backpacking treks, and they were truly magical experiences.
Dad dedicated much of the past 60 years of his life to the GATC and hiking in general. It enabled him to become an outdoorsman with knowledge and an instinct that most of us simply can’t fathom. His efforts on behalf of the Club have left a lasting legacy that will be felt for years to come. My mother and all five of his kids will tell you that it’s not possible to be a Benson without feeling a close association with the GATC. Over the years, at least ten members of the Benson family have participated in Club activities, most as members themselves.
Two examples of Dad’s toughness and perseverance come to mind. Once while he was scouting a trip, he fell in a creek and cut his leg open. He was alone in the mountains, bleeding badly, dizzy, and fainting from shock, but made it the 5 miles to his car. Separately, during the annual marathon hike in 1992, Dad celebrated his 60th birthday by hiking 36 miles along the AT in Georgia, which his family felt was not bad for a senior citizen.
Both Rosalind Van Landingham and Joe Boyd have claimed that Dad had the best knowledge of the mountains of North Georgia and the Smokies of anyone, and that he seemed to “have topo maps in his head”. Joe claimed that he once heard Hillrie Quin comment that Dad was the only person Hillrie knew that “dreams in topo maps”. Rosalind noted that Dad’s hikes were always challenging, interesting, usually unorthodox, and often include lots of cross country. She went on to say that in addition to being an excellent outdoors person in every regard who could hike just about anything, Dad made it possible for others to do things they would never have thought they’d have been able to do. Over the past 35 years, our family has come to regard Rosalind as one of our own.
On one trek through Wyoming’s Bridger Wilderness in August 1983, we were camping high above treeline beside Pyramid Lake when a horrific lightning storm swept down upon us. As we ate dinner, Dad realized what was about to happen and told everyone to get in their tents quickly. “We’ve got 5 minutes”, he said. Moments later, we were huddling atop our inflated Therm-A-Rests to stay insulated from the ground strikes occurring all around our tents. Dad told me not to touch the ground directly because it could kill us. One lightning bolt hit so close that even inside the tent, we were blinded by its brilliance and deafened by its noise. Only inches away from my father, I screamed in terror, but he never heard me from the thunderous roar. Rosalind remembers Dad coming around to each person’s tent immediately after the storm to make sure everyone was alright. It was the worst storm any of us has ever experienced – before or since – and upon returning to civilization, we learned that others less fortunate had not survived it.
I saw that day how well my father handled life and death crisis, and it has served as an example within my own life ever since. And so almost exactly 10 years later, Dad and I once again found ourselves facing death together in the warm waters off Cumberland Island.
Out of options, and facing certain death, my body went into an adrenaline-powered overdrive. I let go of Dad, and pushed straight down to see how deep it was. To my surprise, it was only about 9 feet deep despite being hundreds of feet offshore. I reach above my head, grabbed Dad’s waist and launched him straight up and forward, then I took a step under water and launched him again, and again. I came up for air, and went right back down and continued. I lost all sense of time. I lost my mind. My entire universe was go down, push, step, push, step, push, go up to breath, and repeat.
Dad was yelling at me, “Chris stop! Let me down! Stop!” We had come ashore, and I was picking Dad up, and throwing him across the sand. Then grabbing him again, and throwing him across the sand once more. His words brought me back to reality, and we both collapsed on the beach unable to move for long time.
I could not let him die. It would have been a tragic and premature end to a truly remarkable life.
I learned that day that my father was not invincible. He didn’t have all the answers. Sometimes, I would have to carry the load. It was time for me to grow up – time to leave the boy behind, and be a man. That was the lesson my father taught me, and he did it with bravery, resourcefulness, integrity, and even fear.
When my father was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis at 72 years old, the doctors told him that there was a 100% chance he’d be dead within 5 years. That was 7 years ago. Needless to say, Dad’s ability to bravely endure and persevere against even the worst odds was evidenced to the very end.
Dad would not have survived as long as he did without his loving wife. A person could not ask for a better spouse. Pulmonary fibrosis didn’t just take one life – it took two. She stopped living her life so that he could live his. For 7 long years, she sacrificed nearly everything for him. She is my hero, just as she was my father’s hero. I would not be honoring my father’s wishes if I did not ask you to recognize this extraordinary woman who loved him and cared for him through the long terrible darkness. She was his angel of mercy – his reason to live. Mom, I’m speaking for Dad when I say go out and live your life again.