Joe Benge, whose full and
varied life journey began in a
Chicago suburb and led to the
Canadian wilderness, died No-
vember 16, 2016, at age 85 in
his home on Salt Spring Island.
Joe’s life was filled with many
chapters, each prefaced by what
he referred to as his “epipha-
nies.” There were remarkable
people who shared this time with
him and all can attest to his
many talents as musician, orni-
thologist, photographer, teacher,
raconteur, artful linguist, endless
reader and thoughtful gift-giver.
Joe’s life force and curiosity were boundless. One of his photo-
graphs recently won the jury prize at Artspring’s Surfacing
show. A lifelong passion for birds, photography, history, air-
planes, literature, wilderness and music brought a wide range
of good people into his life. COPD weakened his body, but his
brilliant mind, memory, curiosity and spark never faltered.
Joe was a graduate of Evanston High School. He studied Ger-
man at Amherst and was the drummer with the Delta Five jazz
band, which toured Europe.
Joe continued his education at Northwestern University, earn-
ing a Master’s Degree in German. After a year as Fulbright
scholar in Austria, he turned down a scholarship to Princeton to
take advertising positions in Chicago and Seattle. Meanwhile,
National Geographic sent him through the Louisiana swamps in
search of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, and Esquire published a
piece on WWll airplanes. Joe created the well-known lonely
Maytag repairman ad campaign which pictured an idle washing
machine repairman waiting for repair calls that never came.
Joe changed direction in 1972 when he traveled north to a park
in Ontario. There, he managed The Voyageur Wilderness Pro-
gram. In talks and slide shows in Canada and the USA, he
asked listeners: write authorities to ban logging and motor vehi-
cles there. The mass of letters helped lead to the creation of
Quetico, a wilderness-class park.
Joe then spent several years teaching in northern Manitoba, in
communities reached by dog sled, skidoo or bush plane. Final-
ly, Joe worked for Parks Canada as a naturalist in the mountain
parks. He retired in 1991, traveled for several years while
watching birds, then finally parked himself on Salt Spring Is-
At the last, Joe was bedeviled by increasingly serious COPD
that literally took his breath away. He used the new Canadian
law permitting physician-assisted death as the best ending.
Joe’s last days before his “Fly Away” were spent with
life-long friends, lively conversation, laughter and good
music…. pretty much how things often were at Benge’s.