If you wanted to create the national poster symbolizing what America used to be and is supposed to be, the late Nate Benderson should be its model.
Benderson died Saturday, the result of a brain aneurism. The former Longboat Key resident was 94 — a young 94.
Indeed, in the dozen years he lived in Greater Sarasota, Benderson never looked or acted his age. When we last saw him at a recent American Jewish Committee dinner, he practically looked the way he did when we met him more than a decade ago. His eyes twinkled as they did then. And combined with his short stature and good-natured wit, those twinkling eyes always made you think of him as a happy, perhaps even mischievous, elf.
He was always up to something — a new deal, new development or new project that he was trying to build. Even at 94, he went to work just about every day at the Benderson Development offices at the University Shoppes on University Parkway. And at the AJC dinner last month, he nudged us again for a big story on his latest project and interest — the not-for-profit Honor Animal Rescue Ranch on Lorraine Road in East Manatee County. “Hey,” he said in his low gravelly voice, “when is that story going to run? We could use it.”
A story for our times
The life story of Nate Benderson is extraordinary. It also is extraordinarily relevant and symbolic today in the context of our nation’s presidential-election rhetoric. Benderson’s is the story the candidates should be holding up as what America is supposed to be. They talk about opportunity and being given “fair shots” and doing “fair shares.” Nobody gave young, poor Benderson anything. He made his own opportunities.
A poor boy from a poor family in cold, gray Buffalo, Benderson applied drive, determination, hard work and ingenuity, and created and built one of the largest commercial real estate businesses in the nation.
The statistics are impressive. Benderson Development owns and manages 35 million square feet of commercial office and retail space and 500 properties in 38 states with nearly 8,000 employees.
Now frame all of that this way: During the eight decades he worked, Benderson’s efforts — and those of his Benderson Development colleagues — have built (often starting on raw dirt) and contribured countless improvements, conveniences and assets to hundreds and hundreds of communities. All of Benderson’s retail centers, hotels, restaurants, office buildings and residential developments were assets that helped improve the fabric and commerce of communities and improve the standards of living of thousands upon thousands upon thousands of Americans.
And along the way, as Benderson improved his own living standards with the fruits of his labor and fair trade with his customers and vendors, Benderson gave millions of his money to dozens of charities in the United States and Israel (see story, page 1A). He became one of this region’s biggest philanthropists, making donations primarily to organizations that took care of people in need.
This was a man who remembered his roots — his own poverty and poor parents. When Benderson was 18 and making more money than his father, he gave his parents $500 for a down payment on a house.
This was a man who didn’t seek or want public accolades. To the end, he was quiet, modest and humble.
Frugal, too — a trait that could teach us all, particularly our public leaders, a lesson or two. Two stories:
Many years ago, during the lunch hour at Panera Bread on University Parkway, we spotted Benderson standing in a long line with the huddled masses, waiting to order. Unshaven, he was dressed in a wrinkled golf shirt and bermuda shorts. Here he was, a real-estate magnate probably worth $1 billion, who could have caviar at lunch and delivered to his desk or home every day, waiting to order a sandwich with the rest of the noon-hour slugs. No one had a clue who he was. After he placed his order, Benderson handed the cashier money — and a discount coupon.
Wayne Ruben, another former Longboater and former Benderson Development partner, tells how he and Benderson often drove to the Mobil service station-convenience store in Lakewood Ranch for lunch. They would buy sub sandwiches. Ruben told us: “He always asked: ‘Who’s got the coupon?’”
To be sure, Benderson’s thriftiness contributed his business acumen. Clearly, it was an outgrowth of his upbringing. One of his boyhood jobs was collecting and sorting — piece by piece, color by color — broken beer and soda bottles for his father’s recycling business.
But the trait that propelled him most in his business life was God-given genius. He certainly wasn’t a well-schooled individual. He was a known truant in Buffalo during his high school years; he dropped out at age 16. But as David Eckel, also a Buffalo native and now owner of Bradenton-based Wagner Real Estate, told our Gulf Coast Business Review in 2001:
“Nate just has a feel. It’s an art. We’ll drive around, and he’ll say, ‘That can be a great corner.’ He can envision what that parcel will do 20 or 30 years in advance. He doesn’t have to sit with computers or worry about a lot of scientific details.”
Just take a look at University Parkway and Interstate 75. Twenty years ago, the University Shoppes on the northwest parcel of the intersection was a lifeless shopping center, a remnant of a failed savings-and-loan deal made in the late 1980s. Everything else around it was scrub.
Today, of course, Benderson Development has turned the northwest and southwest sides of University and I-75 into one of the most vibrant retail mega-centers in the region. And it’s not finished yet. Still to come: the big luxury mall, multifamily housing and the completion of the rowing park. Another testament to Benderson’s vision.
His newest vision
A few weeks before he died, Benderson took us on a tour of one of his newest developments and philanthropic efforts, the Honor Animal Rescue Ranch on Lorraine Road. Even though the East County Observer and YourObserver.com had published numerous stories and photos of the new ranch and the construction going on at the facility over the past year, Benderson was urging us to publish another big spread.
“We need to get the word out to people so they will bring us the dogs and cats they can’t care for or come out and adopt one of our animals,” he said.
He walked us around the eight-acre development pointing out details, a proud papa of the new animal shelters and shiny, new playground for children. And he talked of the vision — of turning the two-story home and caged swimming pool on the property into a fully outfitted animal hospital and surgery center.
Asked if he wanted more publicity for the rescue ranch to raise awareness primarily in Sarasota, he turned with raised eyebrows: “No,” he said emphatically, “we want this to be nationally known.”
Small in stature, big in vision.
We’re sorry Nate Benderson didn’t get to see that “big spread” he wanted on the Honor Sanctuary. And he wouldn’t want it this way, but he is the one who deserves the recognition.
Nate Benderson was an American classic, a model for what Americans are supposed to be.
— Matt Walsh
Nate’s Place / Honor Sanctuary
To donate or adopt an animal, call 914-302-0933, or go to: HonorAnimalRescue.org. The rescue ranch is located at 4951 Lorraine Road, Bradenton, 34211. Nate’s Place is 8435 Cooper Creek Blvd., University Shoppes, University Parkway.