She never expected to run her own business—a role not as common for a woman at that time. But Benken rose to the challenge and has made the business successful on her own terms, becoming a pivotal part of the Wyoming community.
“About three weeks before Jim and I got married was Easter of 1971. I helped the family that Easter and then I just got kind of hooked. I didn’t realize how much I liked it until I really got into it,” says Benken of her work as a florist. “I’d always had an artistic frame of mind… I sewed a lot, made my own clothes, taught myself to crochet and knit, and over the years I’ve become a quilter.” These interests and her natural aesthetic eye made floral design a good fit, she realizes now.
Over the years, she has evolved to accommodate changing tastes in flower arranging. “The way we arrange today is a little different than 50 years ago. Wedding bouquets were wired and taped. They weren’t hand tied like a lot of them are today,” Benken says. She likes the variety that keeping with the trends has brought.
Family Tragedy Brought New Responsibilities
When Benken took over the business in 1987 from her father-in-law, Herman Benken, after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, his memory loss prevented him from sharing many of the back office and bookkeeping secrets with her. She says she’s had to teach herself much of the business basics, and she’s learned how to make sound financial decisions.
Benken renovated her current location, 401 Wyoming Avenue, between 2003 and 2004, after realizing a smaller store on the opposite side of the street at 500 Wyoming Avenue, no longer had enough space for her growing business. She remembers rolling her floral refrigerator down the center of Wyoming Avenue one day during the move. “The train was nice enough to stop traffic!” she joked.
Early Years in Dayton and the Fateful Moment that Led her to Jim Benken
Mary Benken was born in Alabama. Her family moved to Dayton when her father got out of the military. She went to the University of Dayton for a year where she met her late husband, Jim Benken. She recalls a moment when she and Jim were about 19 years old, and an automobile accident happened outside her dorm. She says Jim sprang into action and just knew what to do. “How he handled himself in that was a real eye opener to his character,” she says. It may have been a key to their future as well.
She ultimately decided college wasn’t what she wanted for herself, so she went to work, and a year later she and Jim were married.
Her journey with the business has taught her new things about herself, too. Working in a florist shop was not something she thought would’ve been a good fit for her when she was younger, and yet her situation pushed her to grow in ways she couldn’t have foreseen.
“I started out as a very shy person and I had to work very hard to overcome my shyness,” she recalls. The flower shop helped. “My husband was very active in the community, so I decided, ‘If he’s going to be away from home, I’m going to find something to do, too,’” she says. Jim Benken served Wyoming from 1966-2016 with the Fire and EMS department, many of those years as chief. He retired from his full-time job as a teacher in the Indian Hill School District in 2002 and he passed away on April 14, 2016.
Jim’s involvement in the fire department led to Mary serving in the ladies’ auxiliary. She later joined Wyoming Junior Woman’s Club, and even decided to run for City Council. She says City Council really took her out of her shell because she had to be in front of people.
She served on Council for 20 years, participating in the Finance Committee, Streets and Roads Committee, and Planning Commission. “I’m glad I did it and it made me use another part of my brain other than the creative side,” she says.
Her work on Council and as a business owner helped her see Wyoming as her true home. “I’m a transplant, but I feel like I’m a Wyoming person,” she says.
She finally ended her City Council tenure when her first grandchild was on the way because she felt running the flower shop and being a grandmother was what she wanted to devote her time to.
She’s enjoyed her career, but she says she knows she’s had help and encouragement along the way that has made a difference. She credits Dotti Mantel for being someone who provided support. “Dotti was the Public Information Officer for the school board back when I ran for Council. She really helped me feel confident in a lot of things that I needed to do in order to move forward and make running for Council happen,” says Benken. In addition, she credits her father-in-law for being her business support. “He was a really good teacher,” she says. “And I’ve met lots of people along the way. All the names are too numerous. It’s all been teamwork.”
Although operating a successful business has been an achievement she feels good about, Benken says she’s most proud of her two children, Christopher and Cynthia, and the wonderful parents they’ve become. Benken says she’s fortunate to have four grandchildren. “It’s interesting, both of my children went into what I consider service fields, like Jim.” Christopher is a Cincinnati fireman, and Cynthia is a physical therapist at the University of Cincinnati.
And it’s that legacy that will carry the business forward. Benken says her daughter-in-law, April, and her son, Christopher, are ready to take over Wyoming Florist and continue the tradition when she retires, although she has no plans to leave just yet.