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How does one summarize the life of a man who lived 96 years, married three times, raised six children, had multiple careers and pursued his joy of learning, chasing his passions to his last days. A man who cooked, grew vegetables, loved flowers, his family, and ice cream?
Richard was born Richard Holmes Benton in Chicago, Illinois in October of 1927, the first of seven children born to Harold Z. and Mary C. Benton. He died in Bend, Oregon on December 6, 2023, following a brief hospitalization.
Richard’s childhood began in a Chicago suburb. His parents moved their growing family to a farm outside the city when he was young, and he later told his children stories of his exciting life on the farm- riding his ponies to the general store, fishing, hunting and playing in Nippersink Creek, driving tractors, building soapbox derby cars and acting as his father’s chief assistant.
Richard graduated from Woodstock Community High School and matriculated to the University of Illinois. After a couple years of college, he decided to enlist in the Army and was sent to Japan to serve as a member of the US Occupational Forces. After discharge, he returned to Illinois, met and married his first wife, Helen Emmart, and resumed his education at the University of Illinois.
Before resuming his education, Richard was required to take an aptitude test to determine his eligibility for reentry. Unbeknownst to him, the test results were public information. He often told the story that he was sitting home studying in his trailer one dark and stormy night, when he heard a knock at the door. He opened the door to find two men in trench coats, black suits and fedoras standing outside. They explained that they were with the CIA, had seen his scores on the aptitude test, and were there to offer him a job as a code breaker. Ever the diligent student and learner, he turned them down in favor of finishing his college degree.
Yearning for adventure, Richard and Helen moved to Boulder, Colorado where he continued his engineering education at the University of Colorado, climbed mountains, joined the Rocky Mountain Rescue Team and learned to ski.
After graduation, engineering degree in hand, it was time to start work and grow his family. Richard’s first engineering job was with Caterpillar, designing ball bearings. He would tell stories of this time, warning, “Never take a job with a large company, they will send you to the basement and suck the soul out of you with tedious tasks.” He left Caterpillar for an engineering job in Littleton, New Hampshire working on the construction of the Moore Dam. His son Rick was born in New Hampshire in 1954. When the dam was complete, the job ended.
Looking ahead to what life might bring next, Richard decided it might be the perfect time to join the CIA. He wrote and inquired about employment. He was told that the while the CIA wasn’t hiring, he ought to try the FBI. The FBI was happy to have him. He spent the next three years investigating crimes, chasing bank robbers and recording the stories of emancipated slaves and their descendants. Daughter Lisa was born in Kentucky in 1956 while he was a Special Agent.
After three years with the FBI, Richard was ready for a new challenge and found work as a sales engineer for Inland Steel. This work took him from New Orleans to Los Angeles and then to San Francisco. Son Phil was born in 1958, daughter Sarah in 1961. Richard left Inland Steel to form his own company, Compatible Design Systems. This company specialized in modular design systems for schools.
In the mid-1960s, still not satisfied with what he had learned and done in life, Richard and a close friend, Harry Batlin, started a toy and game manufacturing company. Richard had developed an interest in toys and games as a child while helping his father build toys for his younger siblings and playing bridge with his mother and grandmother. These activities fostered a dream he and Harry shared of creating toys that could help children learn. Their company originally made pre-school wooden toys aimed at stimulating creative play. The company grew and became Four Generations, a toy and game manufacturer. It was the subject of a documentary film exploring Richard’s managerial strategy, participatory management, which allowed employees to take part in the management of the business. The business closed in the 1970s after a calamitous fire.
Richard came to Klamath Falls from California to begin anew after the fire at Four Generations. He came with his second wife, Claudia, infant daughter, Tirzah, and teenage son, Phil. He came as a mature adult, already having experienced many of life’s highs and lows, determined to live life fully and make each day better than the last. He stayed for forty-seven years.
In Klamath Falls, you might have known him at OIT, as a teacher and mentor of young engineers. Over the course of his career there, he became the head of the engineering department, received tenure, and lead a successful effort to have the OIT engineering program accredited by ABET so that graduates of the program could pursue licensing as professional engineers. You might also have known him as the founder of Zbinden Engineering, a consulting firm that hired OIT engineering students, helped them learn their profession, grow their skills and establish themselves professionally. On a more personal level, you might have known him as a man who decided, in his sixties, to marry a third time and raise a sixth child, or as a white-water rafter, a cook, a weaver, or a kayaker.
Richard retired from OIT in 1997 and from his engineering firm in 2001. Over the next 22 years he remained active as ever, traveling, spending time with his children and siblings, honing his photography skills, perfecting his sour dough bread and homemade ice cream, building and flying radio controlled and free flight airplanes, teaching himself to sketch and paint.
Richard is survived by his third wife, Louise Ganong, mother of Zahlen, his six children, Rick (and his wife Maura) Benton, Elisabeth Zbinden, Phil (and his wife Margene) Benton, Sarah Zbinden, Tirzah (and her husband David Halstead) Zbinden, and Zahlen (and his partner Dalyn McCauley) Zbinden; his second wife, Claudia Zbinden, mother of Tirzah; three siblings, Margie Aagaard, Suzie (and her husband Duane) Kiddoo, and John (and his wife Jenice) Benton, five grandchildren and eleven great grandchildren.
Richard was preceded in death by his parents, brothers Tom and Jim, sister Cindy, and his first wife, Elena Benton, mother of Rick, Elisabeth, Phil and Sarah.
Richard was buried on December 6, 2023 at Klamath Memorial Park. A Celebration of Life is planned in the spring of 2024, for details, contact Zahlen at email@example.com.