Friend, brother, uncle, businessman. Born on April 7, 1948, in London, England; died on May 15, 2014, in Toronto, of heart failure, aged 66.
No one had it easy in post-war London, including in the middle-class Jewish neighbourhood where Barry Benjamin grew up, the youngest of four adopted children. Rations were the order of the day for everyone, and there were times when Barry played in the rubble of bombed-out buildings. But when he recalled those days in later years, he talked about them matter-of-factly, without complaint.
His early home life was turbulent and painful, and when Barry was 13 his mother moved the family to Toronto, where she had a relative. Despite school tests in England that indicated above-average intelligence and a gift for math, Barry ended up quitting school early and entering the work force while still in his early teens. He also started smoking at a young age, a habit he could never break.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Toronto was brimming with construction work and Barry acquired carpentry, electrical and plumbing skills which he generously shared whenever friends and family had projects. He became an all-round skilled tradesman; at one point he had the contract to clean all the windows at a Toronto landmark, Casa Loma.
Barry was briefly married in his 20s and never lacked for female companionship throughout his life. Although his own childhood was too brief, he had a natural affinity for kids. He was never bored when playing with the children of his family and friends, and revelled in childhood’s pure joys – pulling funny faces to make a sad one smile, making up silly games for passing time in the car, telling corny jokes.
He had a gift for being able to get anyone, of any age, laughing. His wit and irrepressible humour won him many friends. One pal ran a midtown Toronto bar and would often invite Barry to come by not only for his companionship but also because his presence would enliven the patrons. Chess tournaments in the bar were frequent over the years and Barry, a brilliant player, was the undisputed champ – he never lost a game.
In the late 1970s, he moved to Edmonton and initially worked in construction. Later he became a business partner of my husband, Chris Embree, with whom he built the second-largest graphics business in the city. I had met Barry a few years earlier and he had became a fiercely loyal friend. He became my husband’s best friend, too, and a doting “uncle” to our children, Kira and Andrei.
The graphics business eventually came to an end and we moved back to Toronto in the late 1990s, with Barry following soon after. His health was suffering and he found gardening to be soothing. He became a master grower, first in a rented municipal plot, later indoors with a year-round herb garden that ranged from staples such as oregano and thyme to chocolate mint, for fun.
Barry struggled all his life to rise above his lack of education and turbulent early life and make his mark in the world. He may not have realized he had attained the greatest success possible: His love, caring and ability to inspire laughter made him a cherished brother, friend and uncle. His passing leaves a hole in our lives that cannot be filled, but our hearts are full of memories and we are richer for knowing him.
Valerie Hauch is a long-time friend of Barry.