Friends and family remember developer Nathan Benderson for his gruff, frugal approach to business and life, but deeply rooted compassion for helping others.
“He was the toughest and sweetest guy we will ever know,” Rabbi Brenner Glickman said.
Benderson died April 7 at the age of 94 at following a stroke. He was buried April 11 in Buffalo and family held a memorial service Wednesday at in Sarasota.
A crowd packed the pews at the temple and had to be seated in the overflow social hall.
“So many people are here today,” marveled Shaun Benderson, Nathan Benderson’s grandson from Randy Benderson. “I know my grandfather’s hoping the temple’s charging for parking.”
Benderson learned how to get by on very little and make the best of it thanks to his Depression-era upbringing finding a way to start a business at 16 from selling old bottle caps. For a man who dropped out of high school, he found a way to never forget those in need while operating his billion-dollar Benderson Development in Buffalo and soon in Manatee County and Sarasota when he moved the company here in 2004.
His company’s presence is undoubtedly marked with 19 shopping centers and plazas in Sarasota and Bradenton, including the 8,000-employee company’s headquarters in University Park.
“Leadership was as natural to him as breathing was to others,” said Randy Benderson, Nathan’s youngest son and the president of Benderson Development.
Oh, and his father never let him forget who was the leader of the house and business.
“Never forget I’m still the CEO,” Randy said his father told him.
Benderson was known for peppering his employees, and friends and family, with questions to make sure they’re doing the right thing for themselves and others.
“I was scared to hear his questions, answer his questions or ask him questions,” said Keith Leonard, who is married to Benderson’s granddaughter Cyndi.
Leonard received calls from Benderson on Sunday nights for the last 15 years to catch up with family and update him on how the business is going, “but not until after 9 p.m. because the minutes were free."
Sometimes Benderson’s best moments came during late night phone calls to colleagues.
During one of his routine night owl calls, Nathan Benderson would phone Peter Fleischmann, who helped with Benderson’s philanthropic endeavors.
Recently, Benderson met with the Israeli Red Cross and had agreed to donate a high-tech ambulance, Fleischmann said. The great potential for serious violence in Israel had struck a nerve with Benderson, so the call came to Fleischmann.
Donate another ambulance, Benderson told him.
Benderson was always the competitive businessman even when playing board games with his grandchildren.
When Sarah Benderson, daughter of Randy Benderson, was 6, she had a spirited Monopoly match going with Nathan Benderson. She managed to get Park Place and Boardwalk at a hefty price, but her grandfather showed how she could make money off her smaller properties, too.
“When he landed on my property, I was thrilled to collect his rent just like we would from collecting from his tenants,” the high school senior said.
And at work, when Benderson was in his finest, those looking to make a deal with discovered his salty tongue.
“Bankers were shocked in the middle of a board meeting that a man who never finished high school spoke fluent French,” Fleischmann joked.
But despite all the squeezing of pennies, including driving a Ford Taurus instead of opting for a Bentley, his money wasn’t used to live as lavishly as he could, but to help those in need whether human or animal.
Benderson’s mark can be found at the All Faiths Food Bank, Nate’s Place Dog and Cat Sanctuary, the Benderson Family Skilled Nursing and Rehab Center, to name a few organizations and endeavors Benderson helped.
He could also be seen regularly enjoying his outdoorsy and still evolving sports endeavor, with bike rides.
“There he was 94, my father was vigorous and full of life,” Randy Benderson said. “Even on his last day, he rode his bike to work.”
"Mr. Benderson set up a trust with the funds to go to charities upon his death, said Jordan Levy, chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., and a lifelong friend of the Benderson family.
The Benderson Family Life Insurance Legacy Initiative is in excess of $130 million and will go to whatever charities the family decides to support, Levy said.
"It all has to go to charity," Levy said.
"What people don't know is 90 percent of his life the last 25 years was all about charity," Levy said, "but he wasn't the kind of guy to get up and have a press conference to talk about it."
And the basis of such charity is simple to Nathan Benderson, Randy Benderson said.
“If we don’t give to the less fortunate, who will?” he said. “… Nathan Benderson is a great man, and his greatness will never die.”
Nathan Benderson’s charity work started when his wife asked her husband to chair a muscular dystrophy association in Buffalo, Ronny Benderson said.
He was never the same since, always getting involved with some organization to help, spending 70 hours-plus a week on work and philanthropy and getting up early on the weekends to solicit donations.
Why would he get up instead of sleep in, Ronny Benderson had asked his father.
“There was no detail that was too small,” Ronny Benderson said.
Benderson was not forgotten in Buffalo. Numerous articles were written about his passing and life accomplishments by Buffalo area media, and an overwhelming turnout touched the family, Glickman said.
“The entire city was present because he was Mr. Buffalo,” he said.
Behind the peppered questions, the gruffness and the charity, there was always a lesson from Nathan Benderson.
“He just wanted everyone to be better people,” Leonard said.