Thinking big: Michael Benson delivers the goods at Snow, SUU

Published: Sunday, March 25 2007 12:00 a.m. MDT

"He is so quick to action. One morning we talked about a problem at 8 a.m., by 9 we were working on it, by 2 we were done with it and moving on to something else. There was no sitting around trying to figure out what to do."

Benson's strength, say those who work with him, is his skill with people. Relaxed, humorous and warm, he moves easily in all circles. He counts among his friends Rhodes scholars, college football players and coaches, governors, rabbis, Nobel prize winners, senators and congressmen, philanthropists, LDS Church leaders and, of course, students.

"It isn't fair," says Benson's long-time friend, Danny Humphrey, who proceeds to list Benson's assets — handsome, athletic, a scholar, a 7-handicap golfer, a published author, a dapper dresser, a classical pianist, a man of eclectic interests who can converse on anything from the Utah Jazz to food to the politics of the Middle East.

"And he speaks Italian. And he's nice!" says Humphrey. "C'mon, is that fair? When we're in a social setting, I'll say, 'C'mon, annoy me with your well-roundedness.' He has an amazing presence."

Oh, and he looks about 10 years younger than his 42 years.

You could really learn to hate this guy.

During his first day on the job at Snow College, Benson stood on the sidewalk and handed out doughnuts to students. "Hi, I'm the new president, Mike Benson," he said. Finally, one student looked him up and down and sniffed, "President of what?" One man admitted to Benson, "I thought you were the student body president."

Taking the advice of an LDS Church leader, Henry B. Eyring, Benson met with every employee of the college in the employee's office to learn about the person and the school. At larger SUU, he has vowed to meet individually with every vice president, department chair and dean in the school, and he has distributed questionnaires to all employees.

"He's all about relationships," says O'Driscoll.

Pike recalls that Benson greeted almost every student by name as they walked around campus.

"He knew all their names," says Pike. "He knew all the custodians, too, and all about their families. This sounds cliched, but this is a man who treats the janitor the same as the CEO. The grounds people at Snow would go to war for that guy. He loved them."

After hearing the complaints of the SUU student committee, Benson won them over. Several students later approached him to apologize. "There wasn't a student who left the meeting with a concern," says O'Driscoll.

Dialea Adams, Benson's assistant at SUU, has been directed by her new boss to interrupt meetings if necessary when a student comes to his office to see him. "Students have been very impressed with how he responds," she says.

Marlon Snow, a member of the Utah Board of Regents, is effusive in his praise of Benson:

"Everything he does is so positive, and he has such a love for people. I'm impressed with everything about him, and I've never talked to anybody who doesn't have the same impression. I don't think (his career) will end at SUU."

Benson — with the new job, a second marriage and the recent birth of a son — is on a roll after surviving the darkest time in his life.

Benson grew up the youngest of six hard-working, talented children born to Mark and Lela Benson. Mark took a degree in educational administration at Stanford but wound up selling cookware and china and dedicating himself to church work. He moved his family from Texas to Indiana to serve as a mission president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for three years, and then returned to Utah.

There were no real vacations and no extravagances. The family's spare money was used for music lessons and instruments. The four pianos in the family home were rarely quiet.

The children were expected to practice a couple of hours a day or more. Lela once walked into the middle of Michael's eighth-grade basketball practice and took him home to finish piano practice.

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