Fred Michael Benko
(6 July 1939 – 7 March 2013)
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. 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, once even introducing 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, eventually transferring to the West Coast after completing his degree at George Washington University. After falling in love with California, he quit his job instead of moving back east, and began his career as a sea captain, which he did for the rest of his life.
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 the 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.
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 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, mother, sisters, daughter, three grandchildren, and numerous nieces and nephews. A memorial is planned for Friday, March 15, 3-5 p.m., at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Maritime Museum, Santa Barbara Zoo, or the Santa Barbara Visiting Nurse and Hospice. You can also visit fredbenko.forevermissed.com for more on his life and his work.