Tri-Cities-area icon Max Benitz Jr. dies. He’s being remembered for his community passion

Tri-Cities-area icon Max Benitz Jr. dies at 72

Max Benitz Jr., an icon of the Tri-City firefighting community and former Benton County commissioner, has died at age 72.
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Max Benitz Jr., an icon of the Tri-City firefighting community and former Benton County commissioner, has died at age 72.

Max Benitz Jr., a Tri-City political icon, died Thursday in Prosser following an illness. He was 72.

The Prosser native was a farmer, rancher and astute politician who was elected to a succession of public offices, including the Port of Benton, Benton County Commission, West Benton Fire Rescue Commission and the West Prosser Cemetery Board.

He is best known for his 16-year tenure representing Prosser on the county commission and his more recent post on the fire district board.

West Benton Fire Rescue Chief Seth Johnson announced Benitz’s death on Facebook on Thursday afternoon.

Prosser Mayor Randy Taylor requested that all U.S. flags be lowered from Friday until Monday in Benitz’s honor. Benton County offices also will lower their flags.

Taylor recalled Benitz a straight shooter who avoided political guile.

“You always knew where you stood. He was not going to be smiling at you and taking money out of your pocket at the same time,” Taylor said.

Pioneering farming family

Benitz was born in Sunnyside, the son of Max Benitz Sr., a well-known lawmaker in his own right.

The elder Benitz was a pioneering grape and fruit grower and later served in the state House and Senate, helping bring a Washington State University branch campus to the Tri-Cities.

Max Sr. moved his family to the Lower Yakima Valley when the Roza Irrigation District opened and Max Jr. — Maxie to friends and family — grew up a Prosser Mustang.

After high school, a group of Prosser boys headed south to California Polytechnical State University at San Luis Obispo. Benitz studied agriculture but had to leave Cal Poly to work to earn money for the next term’s tuition.

The Vietnam War was raging and Benitz was drafted by the Army, said his son, Carl Benitz.

He studied his options and elected to join the Marines, which was offering volunteers the chance to commit to two years of duty with one year in Vietnam.

Benitz deployed to the war zone in fall 1969. He never discussed his experience, his son said.

He met his future wife, Kathie, in Benton City, in 1973.

The couple married and had two children, Carl and Nancy. Benitz took over the family farm when his father’s political career took off. He would later peel off to run a cattle operation near the highway in Prosser and then work as a farm manager.

In time, the political bug bit the younger Benitz and he pursued his first elected job, on the port commission.

Elected county commissioner

In 1994, he won the first of four terms on the county commission.

He is remembered as a diligent executive. Carl Benitz said his father reported without fail to his office at 6 a.m. six days a week. He gave himself a break on Sundays, not going into the office until 7 a.m.

Benitz said his father was most proud of bringing accountability and transparency to county government and for advocating to build a reservoir at Black Rock, which hasn’t not happened.

Dennis Pleasant, his long-time friend, recalled Benitz would get “perturbed” when colleagues were less prepared for work.

“He was very serious about it,” Pleasant said.

Benitz lost his final re-election bid to Shon Small in 2010 after mounting a low-key campaign.

Benton County released a statement Thursday afternoon that remembered Benitz for his work on agriculture and water issues and for his efforts to keep the Benton County seat in Prosser.

It credited him for leading efforts to expand the Benton-Franklin Juvenile Justice Center, the Benton County Justice Center, the county health building and the Prosser road maintenance facility.

”Commissioner Max Benitz will be remembered as a tireless and dependable public servant who was the first to arrive at the courthouse each morning in Prosser. He was always prepared for the business at hand and was well-known for keeping meticulous notes and records,” it said.

Fire district board

A year after he lost his commission seat, Benitz ran for and won a seat on the West Benton Fire Rescue Board. He filed for re-election in May and was the only candidate for the post.

He also served on the cemetery board, recruiting volunteers to clean up the historic cemetery and served as caretaker for the McWhorter Ranch on Rattlesnake Mountain.

Bonnie Benitz, his former daughter-in-law recalled a warm family man.

“Any time his grandkids would walk in the room, he would just light up,” said Bonnie Benitz, a captain in the West Richland fire department.

“He was always so good to me and so good to the kids,” she said.

West Benton Fire Chief Johnson recalled Benitz as passionate in his commitment to ensure all residents and visitors of the district had access to well-trained and well-equipped firefighters.

He credited him with implementing a bulldozer program to fight wildfires, replacing apparatus and helping form the Regional Fire Authority to coordinate regional activities.

“Commissioner Benitz had an attitude of service and dedication, which will be missed,” Johnson wrote.

In addition to his wife and son, Benitz is survived by his daughter, Nancy, five grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

Services have not been announced.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.