BY TONYA BRAMLAGE – This is no fish tale of that you can be sure, although George Benisek has no shortage of fisherman tales to tell. An avid, lifelong fisherman,he began fishing when he was just a young boy. George and his late wife Barbara of 63 years were living on Captiva when they first came to Gasparilla Island 25 years ago, after hearing the fishing reports and other lore. George and Barbara were astounded by the tranquil beauty that they discovered on their maiden fishing charter trip to the island, and they immediately explored the town to find more information. In fact, George picked up and read his first copy of the Boca Beacon on that enchanting day.
George attended and graduated from the University of Michigan in 1956 where he studied medicine. It was there, in Ann Arbor, where he and Barbara met on a blind date. They both attended the university, and were married in 1954. On the night of their first date, George and Barbara shared their birthdays with one another. George was born on September 16, 1931. Barbara was born on September 14, 1931. Remarkably, they would also discover that it was at the exact same hospital in Oak Park, Illinois. George and Barbara spent the first two weeks of their lives together in the maternity ward at West Suburban Hospital. “Our mother’s roomed together,” George marveled.
After graduation George became the very first radiology intern at Blodgett Hospital in Grand Rapids. He then spent three years and three months in Germany during his mandatory medical personnel service duty in the U. S. Army, and did both his residency from 1956 to 1957 and internship from 1961 to 1963 at Blodgett Hospital. It was during that time that George began visiting Crystal Lake in Frankfort, Michigan.
“It was before there were even salmon in Lake Michigan,” George recalled.
He loved the area so much in fact, that he purchased a charter boat for folks to fish and explore the lake. George and Barbara divided their time between living in Ada, Michigan and Frankfort, Michigan while they worked and raised their family. George has four children, George Jr., Lisa Benisek, Kay Muller, and Anne Benisek Greene. He has six grandchildren, Gabrielle, Gates, Hayden, Mackenzie, Carter, and Braden.
As good fortune would have it, George was given the opportunity of a lifetime when he was employed at Blodgett. The small rural Hastings Hospital was in search of an experienced, specialty-trained radiologist for its 30-bed facility. George’s tenure, training and expertise earned, while at Blodgett Hospital, equipped him for competency in every area of his field, and he was asked to lead the radiology department at Hastings Hospital in Hastings. He gladly accepted the position.
George continually advanced his education throughout his career. He studied pathology, x-rays, isotope technology, sonogram and MRI. George successfully passed all of his boards in Miami, Florida.
“The fishing and warm weather there was a perfect escape from the cold weather up north,” he said.
George became responsible for single-handedly developing the first-ever mammography program at Hastings Hospital. The results of his pioneering work at Hastings established two additional mirror programs for other major hospitals in Michigan.
The 183-mile drive from Hastings to Frankfort inspired George to follow his dream of owning land in Benzie County, where he still loves to fish, hunt, and hike.
“I always wanted to build a small log cabin,” he shared. In the middle of January, after a waist-high snow fall, George purchased the property where his hand-forged log cabin now sits.
George not only ice fishes, deep sea fishes, lake and stream fishes, buthe also creates fish out of wood. He began whittling with a pocket knife when he was a boy, and came to admire the great variety of natural wood that he found on the shore and surrounding areas of Crystal Lake. Shortly after the completion of the log cabin project he spent long hours exploring the woods in the 200 surrounding acres of his property. Quite often a storm would cause a tree to fall, and George began carving fish right out of them.
George officially retired in 2002, and he and Barbara purchased their place at the Boca Beach Club expressly for access to shore fishing. He also fishes his favorite local spot on Grouper Hole from his Boston Whaler that he has docked at its Whidden’s Marina home for the past 20 years. Every year when George comes to Boca Grande, he brings family and friends alike to charter fish with a captain from Whidden’s. “Sandy Melvin is one of the best Captains on this Island,” proclaimed George. “Matt Coleman really knows his way around too.”
George has kept fishing journals and records of Gasparilla Island for 20 years and counting. George knows the tides, the water, and the weather like only a stalwart fisherman does. He has fished our local waters for tarpon in the Pass, grouper in the deep waters, shark for sport, and snapper at the Marina for good eating.
George and Barbara fished together in the Keys as well.
“Barbara caught the trophy white marlin that adorns that wall,” he proudly stated while pointing across his living room. Together they caught marlin, mackerel, redfish, and won fishing competitions where ever they would go.
George fishes daily with his faithful four-legged companion, a 4-year-old golden retriever named Duke.
“Everyone on and off the beach loves Duke,” beamed George. Duke always accompanies George whether on land or sea. Every day they fish, walk the beach, and enjoy the shorebirds. The warm climate in Florida is a welcome change from his northern home in Frankfort, Michigan during the winter months.
“I have literally made my way through Michigan with photography,” mused George. He first began taking photographs for his school yearbook, then he shot personal portraits for friends, he worked for the campus newspaper, photographed special and social events for fraternity and sorority functions, and freelanced at a local newspaper in Ann Arbor.
“I paid for my entire medical school education with my photography,” he said.
Kim Newlin, owner of Newlin’s Mainely Gourmet, was introduced to George’s talent and one of his most creative projects to date when one day Barbara went in to her shop with a very unusual napkin ring. Kim asked Barbara where it came from and Barbara replied, “Oh I’ve got these at home everywhere; my husband George makes them.” George was gifted a special lathe by a colleague when he retired, which enables him to do intricate woodworking. Kim inquired if he made anything else, and Barbara shared photographs of George’s woodworking with her. Kim made a special request to have George’s napkin rings, spoons, and one-of-a-kind salad bowls brought in to sell.
“Barbara really encouraged me to put my work out where it could be seen,” George said with a smile.
The Strawberry Festival is an annual tradition in Boca Grande, and George and Barbara eagerly anticipated being part of this community event each year. George has donated a one of a kind bowl every year to the United Methodist Women’s silent auction.
“It gives me so much pleasure to give back to this lovely Island,” he said.
Focus Gallery is located in one of the most historic buildings in Frankfort, Michigan, and was voted “Best Gallery in Benzie County” in 2016. The owners there became mentors to George. The gallery is in the heart of downtown Frankfort and showcases some of the finest, spectacular, hand-turned bowls that George crafts.
“My sister and Barbara were my greatest sources of artistic inspiration,” he proclaimed.
George works out of his second-story shop in his Northern Michigan home. “If I couldn’t do this work I would really be an unhappy guy,” he openly admitted. His sister, he said, is the true artist in the family. She alone gets to chose her favorite bowl from George’s seasonal work to add to her personal collection.
At the age of 95, George is grateful to have received the Boca Grande Health Clinic’s first COVID vaccinations.
“I feel so good about my life and its many serendipities,” he graciously stated. “I wasn’t sure how the pandemic would play a role in my ability to travel to Boca Grande.”
The annual tradition of snow birding is vital to George.
My neighbor and good friend Michael Kussof has been such a tremendous help to me,”he said. “Boca Grande is filled with all kinds of wonderful people that I am happy to know.”