EAST COUNTY — When the music played, 1950s swing to slow crooners, Nathan Benderson just couldn’t help himself. He would always get up and dance.
The patriarch of one the region’s most charitable families and successful businesses, Benderson lived like that well into his 90s, say several in his large network of family and friends. Many in that network cited Benderson’s wit, business smarts and humility — in addition to his dancing skills — this week in remembering him. Benderson died April 7, after a brief illness. He was 94.
“Everybody who had a chance to meet him will never forget him,” says Rob Oglesby, president of Honor Animal Rescue in the East County, one of the numerous charities Benderson supported. “He was one of a kind.”
That goes from non-profits to business. In non-profits, Benderson championed a range of causes, from the elderly to the poor to animal rights. Jewish-related causes were also important to Benderson, who took 14 trips to Israel in his life.
In business, meanwhile, Benderson, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., was at the helm of the East County-based Benderson Development for nearly 60 years. The firm holds a massive portfolio of shopping malls, industrial buildings, office parks, hotels, housing communities and land. Benderson Development’s holdings encompass 35 million square feet spread through nearly 500 properties in 38 states. His company also plans to construct a high-end shopping mall at the southwest corner of University Parkway and Interstate 75 — a project that, in total, calls for more than 1 million square feet of retail space, 330,000 square feet of light industrial and office buildings, multi-family housing and hotel rooms.
Benderson’s niche, however, was his ability to turn around underperforming properties. Indeed, The Buffalo News, in a Jan. 1, 2000, story called Benderson a “pioneer in the shopping center industry and a pivotal force in western New York.” The paper named Benderson one of the 20th century’s top business personalities.
That personality resonated with Sarasota-based developer Wayne Ruben, who partnered with Benderson on dozens of projects. Ruben fondly recalls driving around Florida with Benderson, where they chatted about business and families.
“He was a terrific mentor, and he was brilliant guy,” Ruben said. “He was like a second father to me.”
Ruben said Benderson had the uncanny ability to look at a property and be able to calculate financial projections on the back of an envelope within minutes. The numbers, Ruben said, nearly always panned out precisely the way Benderson projected.
Like many others who knew Benderson, Ruben has another lasting memory of Benderson: His thrift and sense of consistency, especially when it came to eating out. Ruben ate lunch dozens of times with Benderson, and their go to spot was the Subway inside the Mobil gas station at Lakewood Ranch on University Parkway. The pair would always split a foot-long turkey sub.
Ruben also was part of a small contingent of Benderson confidantes who got together to buy the developer a Rolls Royce for his 85th birthday. Ruben and Benderson’s sons presented the car to Benderson at a dinner celebration at the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort on Longboat Key.
Benderson, who could have a gruff side, grudgingly accepted — though he always preferred more practical and economical vehicles, such as a Ford Taurus.
Benderson’s frugality is likely connected to his youth. Called Sonny by childhood friends, Benderson saw his family’s business devastated by the Great Depression. His father, Isaac, owned a company that found and sold broken glass.
“I realized what it was not to have anything when my parents lost their home when the stock market crashed,” Benderson told the East County Observer in a January 2009 story. “I was eager to find different ways to try to help my family get along and survive.”
By the time he was 16, Benderson had dropped out of high school and founded his own business, Bison Bottling Co. The company purchased and resold used bottles.
A little more than a decade later, in 1950, Benderson bought his first property, the Schreiber Brewery facility. Benderson sold off machinery and metals, leased unused space and found any way he could to make money. That acquisition was the genesis of Benderson Development.
MOVE TO FLORIDA
The firm, after decades of success in Buffalo, relocated to the East County in 2004. It bought the Sarasota Outlet Center, a struggling property just west of the University Parkway exit of Interstate 75. The company paid $6 million for the center, which it has since turned into a thriving business hub, the Shoppes at University Center. Tenants include Bonefish Grill, Pei Wei Asian Diner and Marshalls. Benderson’s corporate headquarters is also in the center, although it will be relocating to a nearby Benderson-owned plaza soon.
The business success allowed Benderson to focus on charitable endeavors. It was in one of those endeavors, at the Sarasota-based All Faiths Food Bank, where Benderson befriended Rabbi Brenner Glickman, of Temple Emanu-El, in Sarasota. Glickman chairs the capital campaign for the food bank, where he saw Benderson’s commitment to people in need.
“He was a tough man, and he could be famously gruff,” Glickman said. “Yet, when he spoke of people in need, he would always get emotional. I am so grateful for all the kindnesses that he showed me, personally. I miss him already.”
Benderson is survived by his wife, Dora Benderson, three sons, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He’s also survived by longtime companion Anne Virag. A funeral was held April 11, in Buffalo. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions be sent to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo, 2640 N. Forest Road, Getzville, N.Y. 14068 or Honor Sanctuary Animal Rescue, 8435 Cooper Creek Blvd,, University Park, FL 34201.
Nathan Benderson fell ill a few days before Passover, one of the most significant Jewish holidays. He died April 7, the first full day of the holiday, which lasts for eight days.
Still, on the eve of his death, Benderson’s family and a few close friends were able to have one last Passover Seder together. The Seder is a ceremonial dinner that marks the beginning of the holiday. This Seder was held during sunset April 6, in Benderson’s room at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, where some of the Passover food staples — matzah, gefilte fish and charoses — were shared.
Benderson died early the next day.
Below is just a partial list of the local organizations Nathan Benderson supported:
• Nathan Benderson Park, an aquatic and rowing sports park in north Sarasota County. The park has already hosted several rowing events
• The Sarasota Orchestra
• All Faiths Food Bank of Sarasota
• Boys and Girls Clubs of Sarasota
• Honor Animal Rescue
• The Sarasota Manatee Jewish Housing Council
• The Benderson Family Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Sarasota
• Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Sarasota-Manatee
From philanthropy to business, many who knew Nathan Benderson call him a mentor, with an infectious humble and hardworking approach to life.
One lesson more than a few learned from Benderson: Never procrastinate. Do your research, but when it’s time to do a deal or a job or a project, don’t put it off.
Rob Oglesby, president of Honor Animal Rescue in the East County, which Benderson supported, recalls it this way: “One of my favorite memories of him was he always said, ‘I don’t buy green bananas.’”