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Jim Spencer, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Published August 27 2010

Doctor 'didn’t care about getting rich’

Dr. Chuck Benjamin gave his life to medicine. In death, he donated his brain.

Until Alzheimer’s disease forced him to retire from practice, Benjamin served for decades as a general practitioner and surgeon in Minnesota and taught as a clinical faculty member at the University of Minnesota medical school, his alma mater. Late in his career, he trained in plastic surgery and used the money he made from cosmetic operations to pay for annual trips to foreign countries where he operated on poor patients who were disfigured, burned or injured.

Benjamin, an avid outdoorsman as well as a dedicated physician, faced the frustrations of early-onset Alzheimer’s with the spunk he brought to all things in his life. First, he volunteered for an Alzheimer’s research project at the Mayo Clinic after he was diagnosed at age 64. Then, he arranged to donate his brain for study after he died.

“If there was anything he could do to advance knowledge, he happily chose to do so,” said Benjamin’s daughter Linda Soucie, also a physician.

Benjamin died Thursday from complications of his dementia. He was 71.

“It was important to him to provide care to people who couldn’t afford it or have access to it,” Soucie said. “He didn’t care about getting rich. He drove around in a used Volkswagen. He rode a bike he bought with his paper route money.”

A native of Hutchinson, Minn., Benjamin attended Harvard but missed Minnesota so much that he transferred to Hamline University and then went to medical school at the U, graduating in 1965.

He worked five years as a general practitioner in Glenwood in western Minnesota. During the Vietnam War, he traveled to Da Nang to treat civilian casualties. Caring for innocent victims suited Benjamin’s personality, his daughter said. But it required a lot of surgery. So when he returned to the States, Benjamin joined a residency program in general surgery at Ramsey Hospital, now Regions, and then set up a surgical practice in Park Rapids.

For fun, Benjamin, a former Eagle Scout and state champion half-miler in high school, took his family on marathon canoe trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. During long days of paddling and portaging, he encouraged them to sing what the family jokingly calls “his beloved canoeing songs.”

“We’d go for 10 days, dawn to nightfall,” Soucie said. “My sisters and I plan to do a memorial trip next year.”

Until dementia kept him from practicing medicine, Benjamin helped in clinics in poor areas of Africa, Asia and Central America, sometimes up to 20 weeks a year.

At age 50, he decided he could help even more if he studied plastic and reconstructive surgery. So he completed a fellowship in each.

Once, when a cosmetic patient complained that her breast enlargement wasn’t perfect, Soucie asked her dad how he could stand working with such people.

“I see it as the next ticket to the next country to help the poor,” he replied.

Besides his family – he was married twice and had five daughters and nine granddaughters – the trips meant more to Benjamin than anything else.

“If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life,” he once told Soucie.

Family, friends, students and partners benefited from that outlook. But no one benefited more from his compassion than poor patients in faraway places who may not even remember his name.

In addition to his daughter Linda, Benjamin is survived by his wife, Leann; four other daughters, Alexandra of Moorhead; Tamara of Turrialba, Costa Rica; Beth Benjamin-Alvarado of Omaha, Neb., and Julie Cobalt of San Diego; his former wife, JoAnn Haag Benjamin, and nine granddaughters.

A memorial service will be held at White Bear Lake United Methodist Church on Saturday at 2 p.m.

Doctor had ties to Fargo-Moorhead area

Dr. Charles Benjamin was a longtime plastic surgeon in Fargo-Moorhead, where he and his wife, Leann, attended Grace United Methodist Church in Moorhead.

In the 1990s, Benjamin worked at then-Dakota Clinic in Fargo and the clinic’s branch in Park Rapids, Minn. He joined Dakota on the condition he got to spend a quarter of each year traveling to perform free surgeries overseas.

In the early 2000s, he had a private practice out of the Advanced Hand and Upper Extremity Center/Plastic Surgery Institute in Fargo.

During his time in the area, he flew to several countries to perform cleft palate and other surgeries. Before one mission trip to Guatemala, Grace United Methodist helped collect shoes for impoverished children there. Hornbacher’s stores also set up collection bins for donated shoes.

Leann, a native of East Grand Forks, Minn., tagged along on the trip to help distribute the shoes. Church members took care of the couple’s 16-month daughter during the trip.

The Benjamins received the 1997 Temple Beth El Humanitarian Award.

– Forum staff reports


The Minneapolis Star Tribune originally published this article Aug. 16.