Some weeks, you cannot stomach another cynical look at our cynical times. Instead, you seek a few hundred words of inspiration. Then you spot Captain Benny Ashley shuffling across Columbus Avenue in midtown Phoenix and you know his is exactly the story to tell.
Why? Because Benny Ashley is 100 years old. He is the oldest living retired firefighter in this Valley, this state, and, hell, maybe even this nation. Benny joined the Phoenix Fire Department in July 1942. There was no fire academy in those days, Benny recalls, no training at all except on the job. He was darn lucky, says Benny: The engineer on his fire truck was a World War I veteran who happily taught a 24-year-old newbie the ropes.
Benny’s salary? “In 1942, I got paid $123 a month. The thing is, that doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but that was good pay because everything else was comparable. You could buy a brick house, maybe a thousand square feet, for $3,000. … Our money was worth something back then. Our dollar today isn’t worth anything.”
Benny’s career responding to blazes around town was interrupted by two stints in the Navy, to serve in World War II and in Korea. All told, he served 31 years as a firefighter, rising to the rank of captain before his retirement in 1974 and also serving as the president of the United Phoenix Firefighters organization. There isn’t a worker on the frontlines of Arizona public safety today who doesn’t owe Benny a debt of gratitude: He helped lead the legislative push to establish the state retirement system for firefighters and cops. In fact, Benny was standing beside Gov. Jack Williams in March 1968, 50 years ago, when “One-Eyed Jack” signed the bill creating the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System.
Not that Benny lives super high on the hog these days. He drives a 2001 Chevy Blazer to the grocery store and church, though rarely to the pharmacy. “At the present time, I take no medication. I don’t take anything,” says Benny. “The only thing I can say is that the good Lord is sure taking care of me.”
The thought brings on a long laugh and a broad smile – two things Benny displays often, along with rightful pride in his independence. He replaced the brakes on the Blazer by himself. Last year, he installed new ball joints. Benny cooks for himself – using lard like his mom did – and he has a couple beers most afternoons. As for his health, Benny’s sticks mostly to old-time remedies if he catches a cold, and rarely sees a doctor, except for his annual cardiologist appointment. He doesn’t watch TV except for the morning news, and he doesn’t own a computer or a cell phone.
“I stay busy all the time,” says Benny. “I am definitely not a couch potato.”
Cancer took Benny’s first wife in 1974. He lost his second wife to a massive stroke in the 1990s. Benny has two daughters – one who lives in Glendale and one who lives in Prescott. And he has a huge community of firefighters, church members and neighbors who check in on him daily. Not that Benny Ashley needs much of a helping hand, even after a century and a few months on this Earth.
“Things don’t bother me,” says the old fire captain. “If I have a problem, I either solve it or I forget about it. … That’s the way I’ve always been all my life. I just never let things get me down or get to me. That’s no way to live.”
– David Leibowitz has called the Valley home since 1995. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.