After a lifetime of enjoying the outdoors and working to conserve natural surroundings, 89-year-old Bob Benner of Morganton faces health challenges, keeping him largely home bound. In the past, he's hiked, canoed, camped and written a canoeing guidebook. As a physical education teacher, he taught these activities at Western Piedmont Community College.
He was a founding father of North Carolina's Mountains to Sea Trail and worked for decades maintaining the 70 mountainous miles in the Burke County section.
Friends recently surprised him with a unique gift designed for the public and the outdoors.
On the morning of June 21, Bob's wife, Donna, suggested they go to the Fonta Flora Trail, and she would arrange for them to ride along the dirt pathway in an ATV.
Before they got there, 40 friends and family had hiked a half mile to the site where an iron and wooden bench was placed to honor him. This scenic spot on the trail overlooks Lake James with Shortoff Mountain in the distance.
It's normally a longer hike to this section, but the county opened a gate allowing attendees for the dedication of the bench to drive part of the way.
Tom Coffey is one of Benner's friends who was instrumental in arranging for the gift. Coffey, a retired audiologist and outdoors aficionado himself, has known Benner since 1976.
"I feel Bob is still teaching me," he said.
In recent years, when they have canoed together, Benner would call out to him, "You're paddling wrong," a memory which makes Coffey smile.
"We knew benches were being placed in honor of people along the Fonta Flora Trail,” Coffey said. “We didn't know anyone who had done more for outdoor recreation and increasing people's enjoyment of the outdoors than Bob, so wanted to honor him with one."
Coffey prepared to contact Benner's friends and former students.
"I sent out emails to a small group of people and 100 percent responded,” he said.“Obviously folks really cared."
Coffey never even got to the end of his potential donor list.
"We exceeded our goal for the cost of the bench and donated the extra amount to Foothills Conservancy in honor of Bob," he said.
The bench was crafted by blacksmiths in Morganton.
“Dean Curfman and the folks at Oak Hill Iron really worked extra hard to get the bench made as quickly as possible, and we're grateful for that,” Coffey said. “The county did the footings and placed it out there two days before."
The informal gathering of friends included those who worked with Benner maintaining the Mountains to Sea Trail, members of his church, First Presbyterian of Morganton, former students and members of the Foothills Conservancy.
A Burke County ATV driven by Scott Carpenter, Burke's deputy county manager and community development director, carried Bob and Donna. After they arrived, and Benner saw the familiar faces and the bench carved with his name, he was quietly overcome for a long moment. Later , Bob would joke, "I knew something was up when Donna made me wear this hat." His cap read, "The Man, the Myth, the Legend."
During the dedication, friends shared memories of outings with Benner. Some of the hikes and camping trips he led were quite adventurous. One fellow said, "Bob once told us, 'From here on in we'll just bushwhack.'"
Another story involved a winter hike he led on Grandfather Mountain. Friend and photographer Donny Williams said, "It was sleeting and snowing and the wind was blowing like a son of a gun." Coffey added they were standing atop the mountain "freezing our buns off." Both Williams and Coffey remembered one exhausted participant quipping, "That Bob Benner sure knows how to have a good time."
Besides Benner's name, the bench is carved with a quote from naturalist John Muir that is dear to lovers of the outdoors: "Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt."
Gwen Veazey is a member of the Morganton Writers’ Group.