Quilt of Memories

01.05.2024 Luke Marino



Before becoming a proud union man, Patrick Francois Benot was an electrician in the United States Navy. He was responsible for rewinding the electric generator on a submarine tender, which carries food, fuel, torpedoes, and other supplies, as well as maintenance equipment and personnel to submarines deep at sea.

After returning from service, it’s no surprise that Patrick’s path led him to become a union millwright in Local 740. He was ready and primed to have a successful career building and repairing generators, turbines, conveyors, and machines on worksites in New York City and across the country.

“I came out of the Navy when I was 23, and when I was 25 or 26, a friend of the family who was a union millwright asked me what I was doing with my life,” said Patrick.

At that point, Patrick was just scraping by trying to make ends meet doing odd jobs, including general carpentry for people and house painting. Then, a stroke of luck came Patrick’s way that would change his life forever.

“Mr. Campbell, our family friend said, ‘You wanna be a millwright and work on machines and make a good living?’. I wasn’t even sure what a millwright was at the time, but I took him up on the offer and gave it a go. That decision certainly worked out nice for me and my family and started me on my 37 years as a Millwright.”

While there were a lot of highs, those 37 years were not without challenges. Ask any old timer in the union who has been around for a few decades, and they will tell you that the construction industry has its ups and downs. That’s the nature of the beast. There are construction booms and construction lulls and being able to navigate the ebb and flow of construction is what makes a long, prosperous career for a millwright that will pay off in the end.

Throughout it all, his saving grace was his wife, Diane Benot, whom he married in 1976—the year of America’s Bicentennial and the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It was a momentous year of celebration for the United States and the beginning of a beautiful life for Patrick and Diane.

In the late 1970s, New York City was plagued by severe economic and political troubles like nothing New Yorkers experienced previously. People were dancing to disco, but the working-class was singing the blues.

Sometimes it takes grace, grit, and determination to navigate the rougher waters. The truth is, when Patrick started out as a high precision craftsman installing, dismantling, repairing, reassembling, and moving machinery in factories, power plants, and construction sites, the construction industry in the city was experiencing a downturn.

While Patrick was a hardworking man and had many years of working 60-70 hours a week making good money, there were slower times. To provide for his family, Patrick would travel to other states for union Millwright work. “I had to travel to different places sometimes—Chicago, Charleston, and Key West, to name just a few.”

Diane was his rock and held the fort down while Patrick journeyed out to jobs in different states for months at a time.

“Our son was only nine years old, and he was waiting for a liver transplant,” said Diane. “When we got the call that a liver was ready, Patrick was working in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and I was here in New York. It was difficult for me to go through those times without him home, while I cared for a sick child, and four other children. Thankfully, it all worked out for the better.”

Back then, both Patrick and Diane were thankful for the benefits the union provided—medical and otherwise. And today they are reaping the rewards of Patrick’s longtime career in the union. “We have our medical coverage, pension, and annuity, so that was a good double savings that we put aside over the years. I made good money so Diane did not have to work, and she was able to take care of the house and the kids. Now, we are enjoying our retirement at our nice farmhouse in Bellmore,” said Patrick.

They say that beside a strong man is an equally strong woman. And that is true of Diane. All these years later, Diane continues to stand by Patrick. Ten years ago, Patrick was diagnosed with throat cancer. After a year of treatment, he was given a clean bill of health until two years ago when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Since that time, Patrick has been going through chemotherapy.

As a result of the treatment, Patrick has lost some weight— about 40 pounds. “His pants were falling off him,” said Diane. To make way for clothes that fit him, Patrick and Diane cleaned out his closet and took an unexpected trip down Memory Lane. Patrick pulled out one union shirt after another. Repeatedly, he said, “I can’t give that away.” Together, they began to see how integral his career in the union had been in their lives. In total, he pulled out 24 shirts that reminded them both of all of places he worked during his career in the union, including Indian Point and other places around the states. “There are a lot of memories over the years. The union was a big part of our lives,” said Patrick.

Diane couldn’t bring herself to give them away. Those shirts represented their entire life together. To honor her strong and reliable husband, the father of her children, and his union legacy, she knew the best thing to do would be to make something out of them rather than having them end up on a rack in a thrift store.

This past June, on Father’s Day, Diane, along with their five children and grandchildren, surprised Patrick with a handmade quilt made from the salvaged union shirts. “It’s beautiful. It really was a very good surprise,” said Patrick.

Woven into the threads of the blanket among the graphics of American flags, bald eagles, the Twin Towers, the carpentry tools, and union logos were 37 years of memories, sacrifices, achievements, and love for his union.