Pharmacist Evelyn Benson looked after Capitol Hill neighbors

When a neighborhood kid had an ear infection, Evelyn Benson would deliver antibiotics to his home. When a youngster needed to earn money for college, he'd find a job behind the counter at Benson's Mission Pharmacy on Capitol Hill.

Though married to one of Seattle's best-loved politicians, Mrs. Benson was known as a pharmacist first and the wife of a politician second.

When she married George Benson 57 years ago, he took her on a honeymoon to Oregon City, where the newlyweds rode the city's streetcar.

"She always said it was my honeymoon, not hers," said Benson, a former Seattle city councilman and father of the waterfront trolleys.

Mrs. Benson, also widely known for her longtime fight for gun control, died Sunday after a long struggle with kidney disease. She was 74.

Mrs. Benson was former president of Washington Cease Fire, an organization working to end gun violence, and spent 11 years on the Cease Fire board.

"She was championing the cause when nobody else was," said Bruce Gryniewski, executive director of the organization. "She was for me an incredible inspiration."

Mrs. Benson's daughter, Ann Hekkanen, said her passion for gun control grew from the 1963 shooting of Floyd Pettingill, a pharmacist who owned another Seattle drugstore.

Pettingill lost his right eye when he was shot by an amphetamine addict, and Mrs. Benson vowed to work for gun safety. While Pettingill was in the hospital, the Bensons, with other local pharmacists, kept his store going while he recovered.

The Bensons' Mission Pharmacy, on 19th Avenue East at East Aloha Street, was a fixture for 46 years — with Mrs. Benson, known as "Mrs. B," behind the counter seven days a week.

While few of his friends' mothers worked outside the home, Mrs. Benson's son, George III, said it never bothered him. "It was never unusual to me," he said. "She always did it. The store was a real fabric of the family and you couldn't get away from it."

Mrs. Benson was born in Morton, Lewis County, and raised on a farm outside of town. After graduating second in her high-school class, she attended the University of Washington and graduated with a degree in pharmacy in 1950.

In 1946, Mrs. Benson met her future husband while they worked together at the Lincoln Pharmacy in Wallingford. They married that year. In 1949, they bought Mission Pharmacy. The Bensons sold the store in 1994.

During those years, the store was robbed 29 times. One time Mrs. Benson chased the robber down an alley into the arms of police.

"They called her the Annie Oakley of Capitol Hill," though she never kept a gun in the store, her husband said.

"She was one in a million, and you don't find those kind of women very often," he said. "She got so many awards, including pharmacist of the year, and she did all this good work for young people at church."

Jack Roark was one of the neighborhood kids hired by the Bensons to work in the store, earning money toward education for a pharmacy degree. "Customers would come to her because they could talk to her about anything," he said. "She was always there for them, someone they could trust."

Active in the First Covenant Church of Seattle, she taught Sunday school and was a counselor. She also was a Girl Scout leader, and helped run the Covenant Church's summer camp near Leavenworth, Chelan County, for several summers.

"She was equally adept at riding a horse, teaching Sunday school, hiking, camping, taking church kids for overnights, running a drugstore, attending political functions, gardening, canning, baking and cooking fantastic Sunday and holiday meals for her family," said her son George.

Tom McElmeel also worked at Mission Pharmacy, earning money to attend law school. "The thing that struck me is that she had a very balanced life," he said. "She was a professional woman at a time that wasn't common, had three wonderful children and a husband who was the greatest guy in the world. She was a very strong person."

Mrs. Benson is survived by her husband, George Benson of Seattle; son George Benson III of Snohomish; and daughters Ann Hekkanen of South Pender Island, B.C., and Amy Padgett of Everett. She also is survived by her brother, James Leyman of Fort Worth, Texas; three granddaughters; and two great-grandsons.

Services will be tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. at First Covenant Church, 400 E. Pike St., Seattle, 98122.

The family asks that donations be sent to First Covenant Church, 400 E. Pike, Seattle, 98122; the George & Evelyn Benson Endowment for Pharmacy at the University of Washington, 1200 5th Ave., suite 500, Seattle, 98101; or KUOW public radio, 4518 University Way NÉ, Seattle, 98105.