Tim Benjamin will be remembered as someone dedicated to shining a light on issues affecting Minnesota’s disability community. He also championed the rights of people with disabilities. Benjamin, who worked at Access Press for more than two decades, died July 11. He was 69 and lived in Arden Hills.
His death saddened those who had followed his health challenges since 2019, and had cheered on his progress.
“Tim Benjamin was a real asset to the disability community,” said Access Press Board Chairman Joel Ulland. “He had an ability to connect with everyone he met and use the power of the newspaper to make positive changes for people with disabilities. He will be missed.”
Fifth-generation Minnesotan Timothy Lee Benjamin was born April 22, 1953 in Minneapolis, to Fred and Phyllis Ann (Laughlin) Benjamin.
The Benjamín family moved to Arizona when he was very young. He attended parochial school as a youngster and Camelback High School in Phoenix. He had many memories of growing up in a large and lively family.
As a young man he developed what became a lifelong love of fast cars and Harley Davidson motorcycles, describing himself as a “motorhead.”
After his school days Benjamin worked as a sheet metal machinist, in what he assumed would be his lifelong career.
He came back to Minnesota as a young man. During the summer of 1974, Benjamin sustained a spinal cord injury in a diving accident and began life as a quadriplegic.
The story of how he met Access Press founding editor Charlie Smith Jr. and became involved in the newspaper and public affairs is one of serendipity. The Benjamin family banked at the same bank where Charlie Smith’s father, Bill Smith, was vice president. Bill Smith and Fred Benjamin became good friends as their sons shared the same life experiences with spinal cord injuries.
The sons met in 1975 while both were in rehabilitation at the University of Minnesota. In a 2002 Access Press interview, Benjamin recalled thinking of Charlie Smith as “the veteran” and the fellow who seemed to know everything about “how this disability thing worked.”
The two were activists together for a time, before Benjamin took a 15-year break from advocacy to focus on rehabilitation and education. In the mid-1980s he attended St. Paul College to study computers, also going to Courage Center for further training.
In 1996 Benjamin began his studies at Metropolitan State University, initially focusing on technical writing. At one point he won honors for poetry writing. “Not exactly technical writing,” he said.
After realizing that his real interest was in social science and government, Benjamin moved into the social science program. He would earn a degree in that field, with a minor in philosophy. Among those who urged him to finish his degree was his friend Smith.
In the mid-1990s Benjamin decided to get active in disability community issues again. He made a fateful call to “the veteran,” who was editing Access Press. Smith and Benjamin began going to meetings of the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MNCCD).
Benjamin became editor of Access Press in spring 2001, taking over from founding editor/publisher Charlie Smith Jr. Benjamin had worked with Smith at the newspaper part-time while Smith was ill with cancer, starting in 2000 with advertising sales. He transitioned into the executive director/editor role with the help of Jeff Nygaard. One joke he and Nygaard shared was WWCD or “what would Charlie do?”
For the next 19 years, Benjamin served as executive director and editor of Access Press, Minnesota’s disability community newspaper. He was a fixture at the state capitol and rallies, and followed countless issues.
One of his favorite projects was producing The Real Story in 2013, with friend and documentarian Jerry Smith. It gives an overview of news media coverage of disability. At the premiere he had to cut off noted TV journalist and panelist Don Shelby, whose comments went on for too long.
Benjamin slyly noted that years before, in a magazine story about highest and lowest-paid Twin Cities journalist, Shelby was highest-paid and …. the Access Press job was lowest paid.
He wrote about 250 columns for Access Press and worked on many news articles. Employment for people with disabilities was a huge focus. So was the personal care attendant crisis.
“He really believed in the idea of disability-focused journalism,” said Editor Jane McClure. “He felt strongly about our coverage of issues through a disability lens. He really disliked ‘pity journalism’ and the kind of mainstream media stories that hold up people with disabilities as superhuman.”
Benjamin used his own situation to highlight the growing direct care crisis, years before it was covered by other news media, said McClure. “He used his own life to shed light on the disability experience.”
He partially retired in 2020, stepping back to write a column and do consulting work.
“Tim Benjamin loved Access Press and he worked tirelessly to produce a monthly newspaper that is respected and valued by the disability community,” said Kay Willshire, a longtime friend and Access Press board member. “Tim made sure Access Press told the stories about how people lobbied, demanded and won equitable accessibility in housing, education, employment, entertainment and health care.”
Benjamin served on many groups including the St. Paul Mayor’s Committee on People with Disabilities, the Qwest Consumer Advisory Panel, the Mixed Blood Theater board, Access for All and the AXIS Healthcare Advisory boards. He served as the chairperson of the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living.
Benjamin was active in the Minnesota Consortium of Citizens with Disabilities (MNCCD) and was a member of the Minnesota Business Leadership Network, an employer organization with a commitment to hiring people with disabilities.
The Arc Minnesota, United Cerebral Palsy, Mixed Blood and Minnesota Council on Disability are among the groups that honored Benjamin and Access Press with awards for journalism.
In 2008 he received the Courage Center Phillips Award. In 2010 he traveled to Chicago to accept the Skip Kruse Memorial Return to Work Award in August in from the Social Security Administration, for the newspaper’s work in making people in the community aware of SSA programs and opportunities to work
Benjamin also very much enjoyed meeting and mentoring younger people with disabilities, especially self-advocates who were just getting their start. He urged everyone with disabilities and urging them to share their stories as a way to encourage systems change.
He is survived by his wife and love of his life Lynda Milne. They were workmates when he attended Camelback High and she attended Xavier College Prep in Phoenix. He was a cook and she was a waitress at the now-gone Googy’s Coffee Shop in East Camelback. They reconnected via email and were together for 26 years.
He is also survived by two sisters, two brothers and their families, and his faithful dog Buddy. An obituary and online tributes are at https://www.washburn-mcreavy.com/obituaries/Timothy-Benjamin-2/#!/Obituary. Online tributes will also be on the Access Press web page, at www.accesspress.org
Services were held in late July. Memorials are preferred to Access Press and Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance.