A diagnosis of late-stage thyroid cancer stole Richard Benitez from this Earth on October 6, 2018. He left behind his wife Sharon, five children and eight grandchildren. But Rich also left a legacy that has inspired countless friends, students, and colleagues. His fingerprints can be found throughout the Paso Robles community by way of his tireless work in education and for many service and nonprofit organizations.

Community involvement

Benitez’s contributions include decades with the Paso Robles School District, where he worked in migrant, adult, and bilingual education and many years as a lobbyist for teachers and students in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

Especially evident was Benitez’s ability to galvanize both young and old toward constructive change within their communities while honoring their past.

Benitez was the founder of the Paso Robles Youth Task Force and Cinco de Mayo events and he was active in youth athletic programs. Benitez co-founded the Hispanic Business Association, was named Volunteer of the Year by the Economic Opportunity Commission, worked as a polling precinct supervisor and served as the community’s Santa Claus at Christmastime. A familiar mover and shaker in the community, Benitez was rewarded for his work in numerous nonprofit organizations.

City of Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin shared fond memories of Benitez, with whom he worked over the years in their respective jobs, service clubs and political campaigns.

“I first met Rich when I was a reporter for the local radio station and, after that, the local newspaper,” Martin said. “My first memory of him is one of broad smiles and firm handshakes. He gave me the feeling I was a friend the first time we met. During all the years to follow, regardless of how much time passed between our encounters, his was always the smiling face of recognition across a crowded room.”

“I have great respect and admiration for Rich,” said Shonna Howenstine, Civic Engagement Coordinator for the City of Paso Robles. “We bumped into each other at various meetings and events over the years. He set such a great example for being an engaged Paso Robles resident — informed and committed, combined with a bit of fire and a lot of humor. We were lucky to have him and he will definitely be missed.”

“I had the pleasure of serving on a scholarship committee for the Hispanic Business Association with Richard and witnessed firsthand his dedication and devotion to creating a path towards a brighter future for underserved youth in our community,” said Paso Robles City Librarian Angelica Fortin.

Ipact on education

Benitez was a doer. He raised scholarship money for high school students through annual tamale sales, was president of the Kiwanis Club and led funding efforts for Bauer-Speck Elementary School programs to offset budget cutbacks.

Among those who worked with Richard for decades is Ed Railsback, whose career as a 36-year educator, 25-year football coach, and 10-year Paso Robles High School principal, brought many opportunities to collaborate, including when he served with Benitez on the board of directors of the SLO Food Bank Coalition. Railsback described Benitez’s caring nature and expectation of excellence from his students.

“I had the pleasure to work with Richard in a number of capacities,” Railsback said. “His positions within the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District brought me in direct connection with him in my capacity as a teacher, coach, assistant principal and principal. I was also pleased to work under his tutelage when I retired by conducting district-level discipline hearings.

“Richard was a dedicated educator who cared deeply for the welfare of all students. As a Hispanic, his interests leaned toward the needs and successes of that group of students, but to say that was his narrow interest would be totally inaccurate,” Railsback continued. “Rich had a wonderful sense of humor and was easy to work with, but not tolerant of incompetence. That is not a criticism on my part but a statement of his dedication. He did not care for poor teaching, indifference toward student needs or community concerns. When those occurred, he was outspoken in his opposition. Fortunately, we did not disagree much, but when we did, he had the capacity to listen, understand and move on.”

“Something that I find very remarkable of Mr. Benitez is that he grew up in a very tough generation for Hispanics because of discrimination,” said Juan C. Ramirez, a mortgage loan officer with Connect Home Loans. “He worked so hard to maintain his Hispanic heritage and for new generations to appreciate, understand, and respect it as well. I have so many memories of Mr. Benitez. What I respected more was his love for his family and that he devoted his life to the education of his students and encouraged them to further their education.”

Fortin added, “I very much respected Richard as a mentor to so many and as a friend. Although he was a retired teacher, he was never a retired educator. His legacy will live on through all those he inspired.”

Integrity, inspiration and heart

“Simply put, when I think of Rich, I think of the word compassion,” Railsback said. “From what I know and what I saw in my relationship with Richard, his compassion for young people and his colleagues was what made him stand out.  We can never go wrong with people like Richard Benitez.”

“There can be no doubt that our community is a better place because of the life lived by Rich Benitez,” Mayor Martin said. “Rich was one of those rare people with deep empathy, strong beliefs about right and wrong and unceasing energy for the work of improving the lives of others. He didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk.”

Of his efforts to improve the community, in 2005, Richard Benitez told Paso Robles Magazine, “I’ve had doubters and detractors. But you’ve got to be a risk-taker. It’s not words, it’s actions that change things and overcome obstacles.”

Mayor Martin said, “We can all take a note from his smile, his love and his actions and make all those qualities part of ourselves. That is the best way to honor Rich and carry the impact of his life forward into the future.