A Tribute to a Master Machinist

A&B Die Casting – Benda Tool, with its imposing building and modern manufacturing facilities in the San Francisco East Bay, epitomizes the successful machine shop. This family business was run by three generations of Dathe’s until two years ago when Ben Dathe, the patriarch, finally retired at the age of 96. It also needs to be noted that there is an offshoot business, Ascent Manufacturing, which is run by Ben’s other son, Ben Walter Dathe in Santa Clara, CA. Of course, during the last few years, Ben hadn’t really been involved in the everyday activities of running the firm. Instead he preferred to do what he loved best: Crank handles on the shop floor, run machines and build dies. And it is only his failing knees that finally led to the decision to retire. In order to not be tempted to sneak back in to the shop, he chose to retire far away to a ranch in Oregon. There, surrounded by hazelnut orchards, he now lives with his Daughter, Marge Cieri, and her family, leaving Benda Tool in the capable hands of his oldest son Robert and his grandson Steve.

Ben Dathe’s career in metalworking is certainly a noteworthy one as it spans eight decades and two continents. Born on February 10, 1906, he grew up in Dresden, Germany, and at age fourteen, enrolled into a tool and die apprenticeship with the famous optical company, Zeiss, in the town of Jena. After graduating at 18, he only lasted for two more years before succumbing to the call of the New World and emigrating to America. Here he quickly found a job with Kodak in Rochester, NY. But he lasted only a short time with that company until youthful restlessness led him to travel to Evansville, Indiana, where he had some relatives. Another disc personality test move took him to Dearborn, Michigan where he went to work for Ford Motor Company. Ben fondly remembers the days when old Henry Ford would still walk the shop floor to chat with the tool makers or admonish the assembly line workers not to leave tools lying around. Nonetheless, he didn’t stay there very long either but went to GM to check out the competition. Following the motto, “a rolling stone may not gather any moss – but it sure gets a lot of polish”, he kept moving from shop to shop, “so as to be able to accumulate the greatest amount of experience possible”. By and by he ended up in Milwaukee, where he met Marge, who became his wife and the mother of his children. He went to work at the Harley Davidson Motorcycle plant, where he was instrumental in designing the famous “tear drop” gas tank. According to Ben, in those days the company furnished some workers with the newest-design bikes – “just gave one to them” – and then asked for an evaluation. The workers were the test pilots and their compensation was a free motor cycle. What a deal! Even so, Ben soon found he needed to move again. He got into die casting and followed jobs to Madison, and eventually to Chicago.

Finally, in 1936 Ben responded to a job offer from Western Die Casting in Emeryville, California, a move which turned out to be a turning point in his career. The war years found him involved mostly in the defense industry, eventually ending up in a job, which, though it paid good money, left him restless and bored. The work was humdrum and unfulfilling and Ben started to toy with the idea of starting his own business. A Bridgeport mill in his garage – the prototypical initiation of many a machining business – work contracted from his boss at Western, and Benda Tool was born. That was in 1946 and ahead of the economic boom that eventually followed World War II. The fledgling company quickly grew and prospered.