Sunday, June 20, 2010

William Benzon, 1912-1998: He Went Out Swinging and Smooth Shaven

My father, William Benzon, was born on Jan. 31, 1912 in Baltimore, MD, and died November 21, 1998 in Allentown PA. His parents were Danish immigrants. For about the first sic years of his life he lived with his parents and two older sisters, Karen and Signe, on Curtis Bay in Baltimore in a house which had formerly been a yacht club. The family then moved to Longwood St. He attended Boy's Latin School and, according to his high school year book, was regarded as an intellectual and as the 2nd brightest in his class. He was on the boxing, fencing, and football teams and his favorite expression was "Well blow me down."

He did two years at the University of Virginia, where he managed to run up gambling debts that his father had to satisfy. He completed his college education at Johns Hopkins, graduating in 1934 with a degree in chemical engineering. He then went to work for Bethlehem Steel (initially at Sparrows Point) where he spent his entire career. He entered their "loop" program which was for hotshot college graduates they wanted to nurture. I don't what his initial duties were or how he ended up in the mining division of the company (Bethlehem Mines Corp.). He spent most of his career there and rose to Superintendent of Coal Preparation, a position that was created for him. He stayed in that post until his retirement in 1974. He continued to consult on coal preparation after retirement.

Early in his career he moved to Johnstown Pa. where Bethlehem Mines had its headquarters. There he met my mother, Elizabeth Tredennick, and married her in 1940. I was born in 1947 and my sister in 1951.

What was he like?

He was a brilliant man, attaining an international reputation in his field, coal preparation. He was also a loving father, expressing his love in various ways, including making some very fine things for me and my sister. He made furniture for my sister’s dolls, a high chair, and a very elegant play pen with the letters of the alphabet cut into the slats. He made me a gorgeous Indian headress – feathers of various kinds, ermine tails, abalone shell ornament, a beaded head band – and various swords and knives etc. as appropriate for various Halloween costumes. He encouraged my sister and me in whatever we wanted to do. When I went off to Hopkins and grew long hair, a beard and mustache, that was OK. And so was going to graduate school in something as impractical as English literature. When, as an adult I needed to borrow money from him because I was out of work, he loaned me money (even after he had retired and was obviously living on a fixed income). He never ever suggested that I "face reality" and move into the corporate world, etc. He knew my intellectual work was important and helped me pursue that, as he has helped my sister pursue her interest in poetry.

He was an intellectual and books were important to him; he had many of them, including many he inherited from his father. I remember a number of Christmas seasons where he read Dickens' A Christmas Carol to the family after dinner on a number of evenings. And he certainly read stories to me before bed as a child – I remember him reading me from Mark Twain, Rafael Sabatini, and others. I was particularly struck by his ability to read dialog so naturally, with expression, like people would actually have said it. He spent a great deal of time helping me and my sister with our homework. He never just told me answers or worked problems. He always asked questions designed to lead me to the answers myself.

My father had an excellent sense of humor, which he slyly attributed to his Danish heritage. He loved Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and one Jerome K. Jerome, and the Marx Brothers. He was also quite fond for Victor Borge. For one thing, Borge was from Denmark, where his parents were born and raised. Borge's humor was often of a linguistic nature, and my father was interested in language (he owned books by Otto Jesperson, the Danish scholar of the English language, and H. L. Mencken). Borge was a musician and much of his humor involved committing mayhem on various pieces of classical and not-so-classical music.

An Athlete - Golf

He was a good and dedicated athlete. Beyond his high-school sports he was also an excellent swimmer and loved the sea. As an adult he was a cyclist (mostly in his youth, in Baltimore and in his early days in Johnstown) and, above all, golf. 

He took up the sport as an adult and pursued it passionately. During his prime – say from 30 though 55 – he had a single digit handicap, even as low as two or three. He kept systematic notes about his game throughout his entire golfing career. One winter he painted golf balls in red nail polish and golfed in the snow. He experimented with putters he either built himself or modified from putters he'd bought. He also had ideas about custom golf shoes which he half-way finished (my sister and I found the half-completed shoes in the basement).

One of the highlights of his life was playing golf at St. Andrews in Scotland (he shot 81 on one round). He read a great deal about the sport, knew its history backwards and forwards, and had a good collection of golf books, including a classic written by a relative of Charles Darwin. It is absolutely clear to me that, as I use music to balance out my intellectuality, so my father used golf to achieve balance in his life.


My father was an avid stamp collector, with particular interests in Canada, Liberia, Germany, and China. He loved the look of stamps, their design (line, color, shape, form, etc.), but also what they told about history and society. Stamps were his vehicle for encountering and organizing human history. Stamps commemorate individuals, events, ideas, and so forth, and thus tell the history of the nations that issue them. All of that was important to my father.

As was the craft of collecting itself. Used stamps are, of course, stuck on envelopes. They have to be separated from the envelope before they can be mounted in books. So my rather spend hours doing that. He had special chemicals, magnifying glasses, balances, tweezers, hinges etc. all relevant to the physical preparation of the stamps. He had books about stamps, and catalogues. He engaged in extensive correspondence with various stamp dealers, some he had come to know on an all but personal basis, even though he'd never met them. Over the years he'd developed relationships with them though the simple and cumulative acts of buying stamps.

Professional Life

In his professional life by father was awareded three patents for ideas he came up with about coal preparation. Bethlehem Steel used coal as fuel in smelting the iron out of iron ore. However, coal typically is laced with impurities, generally rock and sulfur compounds. It was my father's job to design the plants that separated coal from these various impurities. He traveled to Holland to learn techniques the Dutch had invented and introduced these techniques into this country.

His job required him to go into coal mines, where he developed sympathy with the coal miners. He came to feel that anyone with responsibility for making decisions about the operation of coal mines needs experience in working in coal mines in some way in order to understand what was at stake. (How many BP managers have worked on off-shore oil rigs?) Though he spent his professional life among managers, he was unsympathetic to managers who didn't understand how brutal manual labor could be.

Politically he was a Democrat when most of his professional colleagues were Republican. I can remember him telling me about how he and his colleagues were under pressure from the company to contribute to the Republican party and how Bethlehem discouraged its employees from buying foreign cars (he bought a Volkswagen in the mid-sixties because it was a good and economical car). I suspect this is why he was sympathetic to my anti-war activities.

Back to his professional life, he spent good deal of time explaining his work to me, which I enjoyed a great deal. I am proud of what he did and feel that he never got the credit he deserved.

He Went Out Swinging

And so we are brought to his death. He died in style.

He had gone into the hospital to have his bladder removed as treatment for cancer. The surgery went well, but he got blood poisoning afterward and that resulted in a badly swollen colon. A gastroenterologist attempted to scope out his colon and to relieve some of the gas that had built up. The colon was so badly inflamed, however, that they couldn't insert the endoscope deeply enough to relieve any gas; there was a threat that attempting to do so would perforate the colon. The gastroenterologist thought there was little chance that even the aggressive antibiotic therapy they were using would be successful; the colon was too badly inflamed. My father’s only hope was to remove the colon. He decided against the surgery.

I don't really know why he decided against the surgery. By that time his lungs were so burdened with water that he could talk only with great difficulty. When asked, for the 3rd, 4th, or 5th time in a period of several hours, whether or not he wanted surgery or whether he wanted to die he said, in a commanding tone, "I want to go." When a young pastoral intern came by to talk he asked her to "pray for my family" – he was clearly thinking of my mother, for he was not himself a religious man. When I asked, with very practical and mundane considerations on my mind, whether there was anyone he wanted to handle the liquidation of his stamp collection he was able to tell me "William Weiss, he's in the phone book." That's all he was able to say, so there was no possibility of extended discussion about why he preferred to die.

When he went in for the bladder surgery he knew that, when it was over, he would have to have a bag attached to his abdomen and empty it on a regular basis. My sister tells me that he had a great deal of difficulty facing up to this prospect but he decided to undergo the surgery. A successful colonoscopy would required at least three months for recovery, a difficult three months, after which he would be able to return to an almost normal life. He wouldn't have been able to lift anything over 20 pounds and, of course, he would have another bag, this one for feces. He decided, somewhat to my sister's surprise, that he didn't want the surgery.

My guess, then, is that he didn’t want the reduced quality of life he would have had, nor did he want to impose a burden on my mother that she could not handle (she had Alzhimer’s). He had lead a rich, full life, and was going to die some day. Why not now?

Given that there was to be no surgery, one more decision had to be made. Dad was on very aggressive medication, perhaps six IV drips of one sort or another. Did it make any sense to continue this therapy in the unlikely hope that a miracle would happen and the infection would clear up? Or would it be better to stop the medication and allow him to die with less fuss and clutter? We discussed this with the surgical resident on duty and decided to stop all the medication except the antibiotics and to allow him a morphine drip to make him more comfortable.

And it was done.

When, later that day, my sister, my mother, and me returned to the hospital, Dad was restless and tossed and turned quite a bit. Both my sister and I asked him whether or not he was uncomfortable and he indicated that he was not. One time when I asked him how he felt he just shrugged his shoulders and looked at me as if to say, "How should I know how I feel, I've never done this before." One thing he did, and it was quite striking, was to clasp his hands together and move them together over his right shoulder and then down to his waist. He seemed to be practicing his golf swing.

By this time the the morphine drip had began to relax him. Figuring we might have to be here all night, my sister, mother, and I went to the waiting room to rest. When we returned the nurse to his room, Gino, a nurse, was shaving him. Gino told us that he'd asked Dad if he wanted a shave and Dad indicated that he did. Dad had enough presence of mind to move his chin and cheeks to cooperate with the shave. Then he simply went to rest. About 10 minutes or so after that he'd died.

He went out swinging and smooth shaven.

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