Editor’s Note: Longtime Chenango County Sheriff Joseph Benenati Jr. passed away this morning at the age of 97. Funeral arrangements are pending at the Wilson Funeral Home in Norwich.
Before she left The Evening Sun in 1999, reporter Kathy O’Hara penned this tribute for her dear friend and insisted that I use it upon his death. Unfortunately, Kathy predeceased Joe just two years later. I’ve kept this on file ever since, and we’re publishing it today in memory of both. I have no doubt that Kathy was among those meeting Joe at the pearly gates this morning.
In Friday’s Evening Sun, Chenango County leaders, friends and colleagues will reflect on the Sheriff’s life and legacy. – Jeff Genung
By Kathy O’Hara
Sun Staff Writer
He was a large man in every sense of the word. He was tall of stature and generous of heart. He was the epitome of what we believe this community should be. And now he is gone.
Joseph Benenati was born in Norwich, one of six brothers who saw military service, and brother to five sisters. Following his graduation from Norwich High School in 1932, he went to work in the dye house of Norwich Mills. When the owner of the company, Fred O’Hara, offered to send him to college, Benenati said he would like to go into the State Troopers. O’Hara cleared the way and also taught him how to ride a horse, a requirement at the time.
Benenati took an extended leave of absence from the New York State troopers to serve in the Pacific during World War II. His military service in the Marine Corps won him four Bronze Stars for actions in Bouganville, the Northern Solomons, Guam and Iwo Jima. In Guam, he was awarded a battlefield commission and, later, the Conspicuous Service Cross. He was active in the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars organizations to the time of his death.
Upon his return to the troopers, he was appointed to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Later, he was appointed supervisor of the Bureau of Criminal Intelligence Unit, in charge of a 10-county area.
Benenati’s first assignment in this position was as a participant in “dragging activities” in downstate lakes where “Murder Inc.” had sunk their victims. He was later named to the unit that investigated organized crime, particularly in Appalachin where members of the New York crime families were meeting. Benenati served a subpoena on Joseph Barbara and arrested him for criminal contempt. He testified in courts from Dallas to New York City against members of the Mafia.
Benenati enjoyed his service with the New York State Police. He often told the following story. “When I was a young trooper, the detail I enjoyed most was escorting President Franklin D. Roosevelt from the Highland substation in Poughkeepsie to the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park. It wasn’t the prestige of rubbing shoulders with the President of the United States that I enjoyed; it was the good food they served us at Hyde Park.”
After 24 years service in the NY State Police, Benenati was appointed by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller to the position of Sheriff of Chenango County. He won election to the post repeatedly until his retirement in 1982.
Joe Benenati was a firm supporter of rehabilitation. He believed a jail is a place where people should be improved. When he was appointed sheriff, he arranged for prisoners to be given high school equivalency tests. His rationale: “For the inmates to spend their time studying for the high school equivalency exams is far more productive than playing cards all day.”
Benenati also visited one of the first work furlough programs in the country and returned to Norwich to begin a release program here. He worked to amend the state Correction Law, convinced residents this was a good idea and found employers who would participate. He was supported by the managers of Norwich Mills, Norwich Shoe and Victory Markets. The program worked.
Benenati’s progressive views on rehabilitation were also played out at Camp Pharsalia, where Benenati chaired the Citizens Advisory Group. His constant presence at the camp showed the inmates someone on the outside cared. He took no guff from them. While attending a graduation ceremony in the late 1990s, he did not congratulate the students who had completed their courses. He asked, “What’s the matter with the rest of you?”
Benenati was an enthusiastic member of the Norwich Rotary and its programs. Each year, he outsold his fellow members at the fruit sale. He collected Toys For Tots from around the county and was especially glad to pick up the handmade toys from Camp Pharsalia to deliver to the kids in the area.
Benenati participated fully in the life of the community. He attended charitable functions, served as a working member of various boards and organizations and encouraged others to do likewise.
He visited the sick. He buried the dead. He was a man of God with a strong sense of what was right and what was wrong. He was humble yet strong. He embraced his community as a family and he served it well his entire adult life. Much can and will be said of him. But know this one thing about him most surely: He saw his duty and he did it.