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

Published: Sunday, March 25 2007 12:17 p.m. MDT

Michael Benson, relaxing at the Alta Club, has won over students and faculty as the new president of Southern Utah University.

August Miller, Deseret Morning News

Not everyone was happy when Michael T. Benson — the ambitious, energetic, piano-playing, globe-trotting, Oxford-educated, low-handicap-golfing, speeding ticket-collecting, marathon-running grandson of the late LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson — was appointed president of Southern Utah University.

Much to his dismay, Benson, who collects friends like a guy who just won the lottery, learned that a committee of students had rejected his candidacy 10-0 weeks earlier. Of the five finalists, he was the only one not to receive a single vote.

"Even the Boston Strangler would have received one vote," one SUU administrator quipped to Benson.

With his usual deft touch, Benson met with the 10 students and heard their concerns, then calmly addressed them one by one. Among the complaints: During the interview process he had vowed to raise $115 million in time for the school's 115th anniversary in 2012. The students thought he was campaigning with a promise he couldn't keep.

A couple of weeks later, Benson flew to New York and secured a $3 million donation. Before he had even officially begun his new job, he had collected the biggest donation in school history.

"I decided that if they were going to have a problem with me raising that money, then I'll show them," he says. "They saw me as being arrogant. It was confidence."

Benson earned a reputation for thinking big and delivering the goods during his five years as president of Snow College in Ephraim. He raised more money in those five years than the school raised in its previous 115-year history — almost $6 million in cash and $4 million in pledges.

This is no small feat at a school that, besides being based in a tiny, isolated town and having relatively few alumni (annual enrollment is about 3,000), alumni loyalties are usually divided between the junior college and the university to which many students subsequently matriculate.

Benson nevertheless made Snow the first Nike-sponsored junior college athletic program in the country.

He made Snow an all-Steinway junior college, securing 32 of the famous pianos for the music department through purchases and donations, some with a price tag of $90,000.

He made Snow the host for the famed Juilliard School of Music's annual summer camp.

He built the Eccles Performing Arts Center.

Told that the project would be scrapped if he didn't raise $2 million in one month, Benson did just that, collecting $1.5 million from the Eccles family and $500,000 from the Horne family in Arizona.

No detail escaped his attention, from conceiving and building a bell tower as a campus landmark to recruiting his older brother Steve, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist, to "mean up" the school mascot.

He put artificial turf on the football field.

He ran a marathon to raise $50,000 to pay for a new scoreboard and a charter flight to take the football team to a bowl game.

He lured Roger Reid, the former BYU head coach and NBA assistant, to Snow to become the head basketball coach (then this month hired him at SUU).

He brought Elie Wiesel, the writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, to speak at the school.

Last month, funding was approved for a new library at Snow — Benson's long-time pet project.

"Not a week went by without him throwing out yet another big idea for Snow," says Rick Pike, who served as development director at Snow. "The trick was to stay focused long enough to get previous ideas accomplished before moving on to new ones."

After only a few weeks under Benson at SUU, Dean O'Driscoll, the school's marketing director, says, "This is going to be an amazing adventure.

"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.

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."

After returning to the United States, Benson applied for teaching positions and found none. He roofed houses and sold suits at Nordstrom's for several months before landing a position as a fund-raiser at the University of Utah and later as a special assistant to U. President Bernie Machen and then secretary to the university board of trustees.

"After a few a years I decided I loved campus life and being around bright people and ideas and young people who are in the formative period of their lives," he says. "Acquiring knowledge seemed like a noble, worthy cause."

In 2001, at 36, he was named president of Snow College, making him the youngest college or university president ever in Utah's higher education system.

Benson, who already has served as the president of two schools, authored a book and graduated from BYU and Oxford, seems bound for other things, but if he's thinking that far ahead he's not letting on.

"I believe if you're given a task and you work hard, things will take care of themselves," he says. "If I hadn't produced at Snow, I wouldn't have been considered at SUU. I want to build on what's been done at SUU."

It hasn't all been mortar boards and building projects for Benson. The events of the past few months have marked a comeback from the lowest point in his life.

His marriage to the granddaughter of LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley united two of the greatest names in the church. The 10-year marriage, which produced two children, ended two years ago. That was devastating, Benson says.

"The divorce didn't fit," says Humphrey. "He had painted the perfect picture. This was a big piece of the chain that broke. People who knew him were shocked that this would happen to him. That was not part of the plan."

The situation was exacerbated by the rumor mill.

"When all that went down, there was nasty stuff spread about him, about the kind of father and husband he was, and that his faith in his church was failing," says Pike. "Well, I can tell you that I traveled with this man, and at the end of the day I saw him on his knees praying."

"It's worth noting that he always had (an LDS) temple recommend," says Mary. "He was hurt. He's not a critical person. I will admire him forever for how he handled it gracefully, never bitterly. He didn't respond. He went about conducting himself in an exemplary way. He was restrained and respectful."

Benson met the former Debi Woods on a blind date, and they married last summer. He calls her "the best thing that has happened to me in a long time." They had their first child earlier this month and named him Truman Taft — after his favorite U.S. president and his grandfather.

"The smile is back on his face," says Marlon Snow.

"I learned a lot of things about myself and my faith," says Benson, "and that's what kept me going. And I leaned a great deal on my family.

"You find out who your friends are," he says.

Says Steve, "There is a certain weight with bearing the name that he does."

Steve Benson should know. Years ago he made a very public and acrimonious departure from his LDS faith and distanced himself from his family, although family members say he has moved closer to them over the years. That, too, wasn't part of the Benson plan.

"It was hard on all of us," says Mary. "We all love Steve; he's our brother."

Mike and Steve have maintained a strong relationship and express mutual admiration and respect for the other.

Says Michael, "I've remained close to him. He's asked us to respect his decision and his agency in life, and I've asked the same of him. We don't attack and criticize the path each of us has chosen.

"In the final analysis, he's my brother, and I'll always love him."

"We've developed a bond that means a lot to both of us," says Steve. "He is very genuine. What you see is what you get. He is a very bright person with a real talent for connecting with people."

Steve Benson recalls staying at his brother's house once when a troubled student showed up at the door late at night. Michael "spent an hour talking to him," says Steve.

On another occasion they were touring the Snow campus together when they spotted a student practicing piano on stage in the Eccles building. After observing for a while, Benson approached the student and introduced himself.

They talked for a while and then Benson sat by her and they played a spontaneous duet.

"He made an immediate connection," says Steve. "Here's the president of the college playing with an undergrad student."

Chase Palmer, a former Snow football player, made a similar connection with Benson. He was planning to attend medical school, but after observing Benson he changed his mind.

"I'd love to eventually follow in his footsteps and be in college administration and become a college president," he says. "It's his influence. He's an example to anyone who comes in contact with him. I've observed his association with students, and his love for what he does and his love for people. It's unmatchable."

Tanya Spencer, a single working mother, praises Benson for helping her to return to school for a degree at Snow. "He would call me and ask, 'What can I do to help?' says Spencer, who now teaches English. "He was my conscience.

"Professors told me he would call and ask how I was doing. Snow is not going to be able to replace him," Spencer says.

Benson works long days but manages to mix fun into the routine. He has taken his two children from his first marriage, Emma and Samuel, to New York to see Broadway. He travels the world, golfs with a vast cross-section of people he has met on the job, and races around the state meeting with legislators and boards and philanthropists, which accounts for his impressive collection of speeding tickets (including one he picked up en route to the press conference in which he was to be named president of Snow).

"He is so on the go, just buzzing from one flower to the next," says Steve.

Considering all his brother has accomplished already, Steve might be right when he says, "I think his star is rising fast."


E-mail: drob@desnews.com

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS