Have you ever known a person you chose to contact annually at Thanksgiving time just to tell them how you appreciated the friendship? I have.
It was in August of 1965 — nearly 54 years ago — that I first met Duane Benson, No. 50 on what was a tough and successful Hamline Piper football team that dated back to 1916, some 62 years after Minnesota’s first college was founded in 1854.
The football team, however, had not won an outright MIAC title since 1921. Named the best player in the conference, Benson corrected the 45-year losing streak before being selected an NAIA All-American; he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 1967.
Benny, as many of us called him, never had an agent and negotiated his contracts on a handshake as he went on to play in 121 NFL games — including Super Bowl II — for the Raiders, Atlanta Falcons and Houston Oilers over the next decade.
Drafted to run for the state Senate
In 1977, he settled on a horse and cattle farm outside Lanesboro, in beautifully picturesque Root River country 30 some miles from where he grew up in Grand Meadow.
A couple of years later, Benny called me — reporting that area folks were asking him to run for the Minnesota Senate. He said he didn’t really know what it was all about or what he should do.
Benny; his wife, Melissa (a one-time Hamline cheerleader); and another area leader came to the Twin Cities to talk about it. On that day we crafted the elements of a plan in which he would be drafted to run against the DFL incumbent; in 1980, he won with 20,000 votes over his opponent’s 9,000, an honest to goodness landslide in his Fillmore, Houston, Mower, Olmsted and Winona county Minnesota Senate district 35.
His one and only 1980 campaign brochure required some creativity. On a deadline and lacking the easy availability of a formal headshot, we carefully grafted his handsome football face onto the body of another man in appropriate formal attire. It worked just fine.
14 years as a state senator
Benny served effectively for 14 years as a state senator, including a stint as the Senate Republican leader. As a member of the minority caucus, he excelled at finding a way to get the right things to happen by genially but thoughtfully working across the partisan divides.
His name was floated widely in Republican circles for years whenever the Independent-Republicans were looking for a congressional, gubernatorial or U.S. Senate candidate. He never took the bait.
Benny was hired in 1994 to serve as executive director of the influential Minnesota Business Partnership, a job I had held a decade earlier. He stayed for nine years, heading the group of 100 CEOs of Minnesota-based companies who undertook policy research and advocacy to build a better state, both economically and socially.
Later, he directed a new organization that advanced early learning of preK kids, outlining a then-unique scholarship program for families who would otherwise be unable to afford it. The $70 million program still exists today for those families eligible.
In 2012, Gov. Mark Dayton named him to the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority to help oversee construction of what became First Bank Stadium. Benny’s understanding of both professional sports and the legislative process was instrumental in getting the $1.1 billion job done in an open, aboveboard manner.
A joyous journey for the purposeful life
After a five-year battle with cancer, Benny passed away at age 73 on Jan. 26 at Mayo Clinic. He is survived by wife, Melissa, daughter Brooke, son Jess, four grandchildren, a brother and two sisters, plus a whole lot of us who thought the world of him.
Four days after his death, more than 300 of us from all walks of Benny’s life gathered on one of the coldest days of the year at Lanesboro’s Bethlehem Lutheran Church. Together, under the direction of Rev. Mark Woodward, we honored his legacy with respect and good humor, both qualities of which Benny demonstrated every day.
Woodward, who knew Benny well as a teacher in his church, summed it up best when he said that “he made many lives better with compassion and understanding … truly a man of spirit, faith and love with an incredibly unique sense of humor.”
While gone far too soon for the many who knew and loved him, it has been said that death is a joyous journey for the purposeful life. Benny’s was such a life, no doubt.
Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm. He is a former state chair of the then-Independent-Republicans of Minnesota (IRM).