Subway hero Benjamin Schaffer commemorated with street co-naming ceremony

Benjamin W. Schaeffer
Recently inaugurated Benjamin W. Schaeffer Way runs along 15th Street at the corner of Avenue N in Midwood.
Photo by Arthur De Gaeta

Brooklyn native Benjamin Schaefer, an MTA conductor and retired auxiliary sergeant from the 70th precinct, left his mark on many lives. 

Now, three years after his death, the corner of East 15th Street and Avenue N will bear his name.

Schaeffer was passionate about trains. He loved taking pictures of them, riding the subway system, and working for the MTA.  He served as a conductor for over two decades.

He was a transit expert, author, photographer, historic preservationist, essential worker and subway hero. He was a historian of New York City transit and rail-marine freight operations and documented the railways of New York for over 40 years.

“If you ride the subway, you have benefited from Ben’s knowledge and contributions whether you know it or not,” said Lisa Smid, Schaeffer’s significant other.

Schaffer was awarded the MTA Medal of Excellence and was a nominee for the Daily News Hometown Hero Award after he acted quickly to evacuate his passengers when a rider poured gasoline on the floor of one of the train’s carriages as it pulled into the 36th Street station in Sunset Park. The perpetrator was arrested.

“Ben showed what it means to be a public servant, most notably, putting his own life at risk to ensure the safety of the passengers in his care while evacuating a train car in 2018,” said former Interim President of the MTA Sarah Feinberg.

Photo by Arthur De Gaeta.

In September 2019, Schaeffer made headlines again when he successfully fought the MTA to take off work for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year’s celebration that takes place in mid-September. The incident shook Schaeffer so badly he was reassigned to office duty at TWU headquarters after receiving a PTSD diagnosis.

Years later, he pushed the city’s transit agency to create a yarmulke, a cap used during prayer, with MTA insignia. His sense of duty to the city didn’t end there.

In the middle of the pandemic, Schaeffer contracted coronavirus. Members of New York’s Public Transit Union Local 100 put out a call for plasma donations to try to save his life, but after battling the virus for several weeks, he died at Maimonides Hospital on April 28, 2020, a day after his 58th birthday. Many community members continue to grieve the loss of the heroic man. He was buried at Mount Judah Cemetery.

Last Sunday, on a rainy afternoon, dozens of umbrella-clad friends, neighbors, and colleagues gathered to remember him and witness the unveiling of the new sign that has turned a stretch of East 15th Street into Benjamin W. Schaeffer Way. 

“Ben’s dream was to run for City Council after retirement, and it would have been a formidable race,” said Smid. “The irony that his would-be opponent has played a hand in memorializing him in their district is not lost on me.”

District 48’s Council Member, Inna Vernikov, opened the co-naming proposal to a vote before Community Board 14. She attended the ceremony alongside East Midwood Jewish Center Rabbi Cantor Sam Levine, Council members Ed Powell, Ari Kagan, Nathan Thompson and Schaeffer’s MTA and TWU colleagues.

“Ben was always out there putting in his auxiliary hours and helping those in need in the community he served,” said his mom Harriet as she held the new street sign with joy.

Many more followed, to speak about how Shaeffer touched their lives.

“Ben was an individual who lived and breathed Midwood, New York City, professionalism, his union and who engaged in selfless service before dying suddenly and shockingly during some of the darkest days in our city’s modern history,” reads a website that honors Schaeffer’s history. “While his death left a large hole in Midwood and beyond, a co-naming provides some level of closure and is appropriate given the unusual extent and nature of Ben’s life and service. It also reminds those who knew Ben that his memory and his legacy is not forgotten.”