Brevard's historian ends career by solving mystery

Benn solves map mystery before retiring from 25 years of service

reprinted from FloridaToday


1971: Joined the Brevard County Sheriff's Department
1984: Became a special assistant to Brevard County Commissioner Theo York
1986: Worked in the Brevard County Code Enforcement Department
1993: Moved to Brevard County Emergency Management Office
2002: Received a Governor's Hurricane Conference Emergency Management Award for hurricane preparedness and planning
2002: Became the first, full-time Brevard County Historical Commission Director

Like any history buff, Stephen Benn enjoys a good mystery.

Just days before his retirement today as Brevard's first full-time Historical Commission director, Benn solved an 81-year-old riddle about the disappearance of 1928 aerial maps of Florida's coastline -- the first ever taken.

"Historically, it's priceless to see what this place looked like in 1928," said Benn, 62. "We can go back to the different aerials of the county to confirm or debunk the various things that have come down through history."

The seven-year document odyssey began when Benn attempted to order a full set of the aerial photographs -- 78 in all -- from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. That was back in 2002, when he first took the Historical Commission director's job. He was told that NOAA transferred them to the National Archives in 1993.

But Benn's multiple requests to the National Archives turned up nothing. He asked then-U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon and Sen. Bill Nelson for a congressional inquiry into the National Archives.

"These attempts were fruitless and I amusingly considered hiring Sandy Berger to retrieve them," Benn joked, referring to President Bill Clinton's national security adviser. Berger got caught removing copies of classified documents from the National Archives.

Finally, a few months ago, "a very concerned government individual" located them in a mountain of paperwork at the Federal Records Center in Boulder, Colo. A photograph shows stacks upon stacks of brown paper packages filled with the aerial pictures and filed on shelves in an 800-cubic-foot storage facility.

This wasn't Benn's first stab at detective work. He worked in the organized crime unit of the Brevard County Sheriff's Office.

"Five organized crime families were represented here in Brevard County," he said, adding that they weren't necessarily coordinating criminal activity here, although he did arrest some for stealing heavy construction equipment. "They were sort of gettin' away from it all. They had a few condos on the beach."

But the criminal work took its toll and he left the sheriff's office in 1984 to work for County Commissioner Theo York.

He said he also is proud of the work he did with the Brevard County Emergency Management Office in the late 1990s.

"I wrote the evacuation and shelter plan and secured $7 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for hurricane shutters and generators for the schools and community centers that are used as hurricane shelters, including forming the first pet-friendly shelters," Benn said.

That's why he received the Governor's Emergency Management Award in 2002.

His labors of love with the Historical Commission also left a lasting legacy for generations to come. Benn successfully established the Brevard County State Historical Marker Program. They include signs for the Ulumay Native American encampment on Merritt Island, Honest John's Fish Camp in Floridana Beach and the Juan Ponce De Leon landing site on Melbourne Beach.

"Steve has taken tremendous interest in pretty much all facets in helping to preserve the documents and artifacts that we have as part of the archives," said David Paterno, chairman of the Brevard County Historic Commission.

Another mark Benn made was to move the Historic Commission office -- along with its archives -- from a closet at the Agricultural Center in West Cocoa to a 3,400-square-foot office in Byrd Plaza in Cocoa. He also developed a climate-controlled room in order to store the archives.

For his 25 years of service, the Brevard County Commission recognized Benn at this week's meeting.

And it was then that he also turned over to the commissioners CDs containing the 78 aerial photographs from 1928.

The Historical Commission designated Benn as "Director Emeritus" earlier this month. So how will a historian and weather buff spend his retirement?

"Enjoying my life while I'm still able to, as opposed to working," he said.