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

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

Benson, already thinking creatively, resorted to creative ways to escape the piano bench. He persuaded his sister Mary to play the piano for him so he could shoot baskets in the driveway instead. ("And make lots of mistakes so Mom thinks it's me," he directed her.) To maintain the deception, he had to catch each shot before the ball hit the concrete so his mother wouldn't be alerted by the noise. Later, he made recordings of his piano practices and played them while he shot baskets.

"Now I thank my mother for my love of music," says Benson, who still plays regularly, favoring the work of Chopin and Rachmaninov (he once performed with Snow's jazz band). The sound of classical music emanates from his SUU office as he works.

Benson was an able and involved student at Salt Lake City's East High School. He served as president of the a cappella choir, president of the LDS seminary council and co-captain of the school basketball team. He was named East's top senior basketball player.

Well before then he was already engaging, popular and precociously motivated.

Name another fourth-grader who, weary of such nicknames as "Chubby" and "Crisco Kid," took up running to lose weight. ("I remember him as a cute, roly-poly, squishy little boy," says his brother Steve.) By the time he reached high school, he had done more than lose weight with his running.

He ran the half-mile in under 2 minutes for the East High track team and covered a marathon in 2 hours and 41 minutes in the summer. After Benson was spotted running in a BYU P.E. class, the school track coach invited him to join his team (Benson declined).

Instead, Benson played for the BYU junior varsity basketball team for one season. Years later, he lettered for the Oxford basketball team, serving as a player-coach one year.

The young Benson was an achiever in an achievement-oriented family that was headed by Ezra Taft Benson, who in the 1950s served as U.S. secretary of agriculture in the Eisenhower administration, was an LDS general authority and in the 1980s became president of the LDS Church.

"In public, his image was very stern and serious," says Benson. "But in private my grandfather was warm and affable. He had a great sense of humor."

In Benson's house there is a photo of the young Ezra Taft, and visitors frequently note the similarities between him and his grandson. "I think of Michael as having all of my grandfather's best attributes — intelligence, love of government, public service and love of people," says Benson's sister, Mary Richards.

Benson was going to pursue a career in athletic administration, not academics, but his older brother helped to convince him that his talents could be better used elsewhere.

"I can't see my little brother in a long-term career wearing sweats," Steve told him one day.

Instead, Benson, armed with a doctorate from Oxford University, wound up wearing jeans and roofing houses after returning from three years of study in England.

The CliffNotes of Benson's formative years: Served an LDS Church mission to Italy; attended BYU; sold his car to finance a trip to study in Jerusalem for two semesters; interned for Sen. Orrin Hatch in Washington, D.C.; took a political science degree at BYU; worked full time for Hatch as a junior staff member in Washington; entered Oxford at 27, and earned a doctorate in modern Middle Eastern history.

Along the way he developed a passion for Israel and President Harry S. Truman. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on Truman to support his contention that the president's major role in the creation of Israel was not politically motivated but was based on altruism and religious beliefs.

Benson returned to Israel on a fellowship for further research and turned his dissertation into a book — "Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel." It made him a sought-after expert on Israel, a country he has visited 16 times.

"While writing that book, I would get the feeling that someone was looking over my shoulder," he says. "I felt an otherworldly presence sometimes when I was writing. My book was the first to take on the premise that Truman did what he did with Israel for political reasons. He did it because it was the moral and right and compassionate thing to do."

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