His race now run, legendary Wauwatosa West track coach Dan Benson Sr.’s life was a perfect example of how to pass the baton onto others.
Benson Sr., who passed away on Feb. 15 after a short illness at the age of 93, was many things to many people.
He was a record-setting UW-Milwaukee distance runner, a revered teacher, a coach in many sports, a hall of fame swim official, a full bird colonel in the Army Reserves, a loving husband of 69 years to his late wife Joyce, and a father, grandfather and great grandfather.
Benson Sr. was also a friend, a host and an elder statesmen and a confidante to many. He belonged to many halls of fame (Tosa West, UWM, and the state swim coaches association for his 44 years of officiating that sport).
There were so many pictures of him, the vast majority of them with people he cared about, such as family, students or his teams, that they they almost blocked the windows at St. John Vianney Church on that sunny Feb. 19 morning when his funeral was held.
It was a celebration of all things Tosa West as well as of track and of service.
The Tosa West could be seen in his son Dan Benson Jr.’s tie, a resplendent green with little gold runners pacing across it, as well as in the tie clip that held it in place. The clip, a narrow band of silver, had “Suburban (Conference) Champs ’65” engraved on it.
His grandson Eddie, Dan Jr.’s son, could also be seen wearing an old Tosa West stick pin.
“I just dug through Dad’s jewelry box,” Benson Jr. chuckled softly.
The track could be seen everywhere in the room from the photos of him rushing to hit the line first in his prep days at Milwaukee West and at UW-Milwaukee, and could also be seen in the numerous track coaches, athletes, and officials, all friends who visited and stayed.
It could also be seen in the number of running shoes being worn in his honor, including by the presiding priest. There was a family worry that sports were being emphasized too much in the obituary, but as grandson Jeffrey Oloizia noted in his perfectly balanced eulogy, sports for his grandfather were “just another way of looking at the world. They helped build confidence and character.”
And his service was abundantly represented in the small but all-so-important array of medals, caps and photos for this Army Air Corps reservist, who was training on B-24 Liberator long-range bombers when World War II ended. He stayed in the reserves, rising to the rank of full colonel before retiring.
Benson Sr. was proud of his military service, but only up to a point.
He never served overseas, and that is why, when his son and others in the family encouraged him a few years ago to take an Honor Flight as so many aging veterans of World War II and the Korean War have, he declined.
He did so because, remarkably, he didn’t feel he was worthy of it.
“Dad told me he didn’t want to take the seat of someone who had actually gone over and fought,” Benson Jr. said.
In short, this was a lovely, not totally unhappy celebration of a life well-lived and to be honest, it was remarkable that the family carried it off as perfectly as they did, because they had just been at St. John’s on Feb. 14 to say good-bye to their lovely entertainer, artist and yes, private investigator mother, Joyce who had passed away at the age of 91 on Feb. 7.
It could be argued that Benson Sr., who suffered a stroke shortly before his wife’s funeral, simply didn’t want to be without her.
The couple, after retirement, had traveled and taken up a life as snowbirds, living their winters and entertaining friends in Fort Myers, Florida, and joyously coming back to Wisconsin when the snow had finally cleared the track and they could see the grand-kids.
They had been so happy together.
There were still small laughs on Feb. 19, such as a story shared about one of Benson Sr.’s storied track teams, the 1971 squad that virtually did not lose until the state meet. After one meet victory that season, Benson Sr. was peppered with questions on the bus ride home from his happy and cocky crew like, “How do you like us now, Benny?”
Dan Jr. was just a kid then who would grow into a state championship long jumper at West for his father as well as a state championship track coach at Homestead. He had tagged along on the bus for that meet and when he heard that jibe from the team, he thought his still military-mannered father would explode, but all Benson Sr. did was quietly admonish his crew by saying “You better not call me Benny if we lose.”
The team laughed and started singing that little admonishment back to Benson Sr. Benson Jr. said he didn’t see it, but he was certain his dad had a big smile on his face when that happened.
The rest of the ceremony could have been about the 10 conference championship teams, put together in a 26-year career (1961-87) or the seven individual state champions (including his son) that went along with them. It could have also been about the still-going-strong at 40 years Trojan Athletic Club Track Invitational that Benson Sr. founded.
It is now appropriately named the Dan Benson Invite.
Instead, the day remained about his love of family and of service. A luncheon was sponsored afterwards and before that Benson Sr. was feted with a perfectly executed presentation of the American flag by a military honor guard.
He would have admired the trio’s precision, for as noted, Benson Sr. was a stickler for being on time and doing things right.
The officiant said that when Benson Sr. was born “He was presented with a stop watch by his obstetrician and he has been keeping pretty good time ever since.”
His obituary card emphasized that point as it was that famous Bible quote from Timothy II:
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.”
In the end, there was no doubt that Benson Sr. had completed his life’s race hard and completed it well.
Benson Sr. is survived by four children, four grandchildren and and two great-grandchildren. The family suggests that in lieu of flowers, a donation be made to the Tosa West Athletic Booster Club or the Metro Swimming Officials Association Memorial Award.