Thank you, Benny

I finally persuaded my dad to tag along on the golf course, and a newfound friend couldn’t have been more accommodating

By Ryan French

Those who have come to know Benny Benson know him best as the guy who rolled up to the Alpena City Open this summer, still drunk from the night before. He arrived eight minutes before his tee time, with his shirt inside out, hit four shots on the range in his slides, headed to the first tee and fired a 72. That’s Benny, all right, but there is another side most of us haven’t seen. Benny took care of his ailing mother as she battled cancer. He lived with her, cared for her and watched her slowly die. “She used to squeeze my hand so hard when she went to the bathroom,” he says. “She was in so much pain she needed something to squeeze. She would scream.” 

Benny was also there when I finally persuaded my dad to come with me to my golf league on Wednesday evening. I had asked him several times to ride along, but he always came up with an excuse. He would privately tell my mom he was embarrassed. He is 76 now and battling dementia. The group in which I play includes people he knows — his eye doctor, kids of family acquaintances and his old friends — and I understood why that would be hard. But he finally relented. It was 75 degrees and sunny, a perfect October day in northern Michigan. The leaves have started to turn; the colors are vibrant. It doesn’t get any better than being on a golf course in the fall. 

I texted Todd Skiba, who puts the groups together, and asked to be paired with people who would be OK with my dad being in the way at times. “Of course, Ryan,” came the replay. “Happy to.” When we rolled up to River’s Edge, Benny was the first person I saw. As I walked to the practice area, Dad stayed in the car. Benny asked if he needed help. He talked to him while I paid and got the cart. When I returned to the range, Benny helped Dad out of the car and guided him to the practice tee. Dad was in an unusually good mood, so much so that I convinced him to hit a few balls. He took five swings and even got the last couple of balls airborne, hammering the driver almost 90 yards. We headed to the first tee. I was playing with Benny, and Tom Bennett, who two weeks earlier had recorded his first hole-in-one at age 68. 

Benny lives in a camper just a few miles from River’s Edge. A business owner named Dave loaned him $25,000 to buy a piece of property, which Benny is slowly paying him back for. The camper is an upgrade from his truck, where Benny had been sleeping if he wasn’t staying at his friend’s hunting camp. Another friend was going to store the camper for the winter, but he gave it to Benny to use.

On the first tee, I alerted Benny and Tom that Dad would probably talk in their backswings, say something inappropriate (the brain filter is gone; he says whatever he is thinking) and probably pee anywhere, which he did, just off the fifth tee. Both were wonderfully understanding.  

Dad was engaged and active, which is a rarity. He told stories while getting 90 percent of the facts wrong, called me Scott (my brother) half of the time and talked when we were all hitting. But I could tell he was having a fabulous time. “Text your mother that I am having fun,” he told me on the fourth hole. “That is great news!” she replied. 

“His mother did everything for Benny,” Gerry, the eye doctor, told us after the round. “She was a wonderful woman, and she did everything for him.” Benny lived with her for the last year of her life. “I got her medicine, cooked for her, wiped her ass,” he says. Mary Benson died on Dec. 27, 2015. Benny had lost his everything. 

Benny helped me look after Dad during the round. Once while I was putting, Dad sat on the floor of the cart. Benny helped him up and into the seat. When Dad was in the way or walked behind him as he swung, Benny didn’t say a word. He just waited for him to pass. Tom was excellent too. 

After the round, we headed into the clubhouse to tally up the scores and have a drink. The entire group was so accepting of Dad. Gerry nodded when Dad told him he was with the person who shot a record buck in the area. (He wasn’t.) John let him know his wallet was about to fall out of his pocket. Mom had given him money to pay for drinks (Mom, you didn’t give him enough; you owe me $20), and for a few brief minutes, he felt like he belonged. It was as perfect a day as it could have been for someone living with dementia. 

Benny is generous to a fault, summed up by one story. He is always broke. (For example, I paid his $20 skins entry fee this weekd.) Last summer he and his team won a charity scramble. His portion of the winnings was $125. At the time, he had $300 to his name…and he donated the $125 back to the charity. Last week he delivered three new flannel shirts that didn’t fit him to my dad. When I got home on Wednesday night, I got a text message from Bennie. “It was cool to see Howard out there today,” he wrote. “I didn’t care what I shot. (The guy shot 74 and waxed me by six). I was just glad he was around. Thanks again for everything you have done for me.” I forwarded the text to my mom, who replied, “Tears in my eyes.” 

On our four-hour drive to and from the Detroit Open last month, Benny and I talked a lot. He has had a tough life; much of it continues to be self-inflicted. Among other transgressions, he struggled with drugs in high school, lost good jobs because of stupid mistakes and got arrested for drunk driving. He is far from perfect; none of us are. You can make mistakes and also be a good person. Benny is precisely that, a flawed person whom I’m lucky to have met. His kindness toward my dad will not be forgotten. 

Thanks, everyone. Especially to you, Benny.

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13 thoughts on “Thank You, Benny”

  1. Ryan,
    You gotta stop doing this to me, man.
    It’s late here (Ireland) and once again I’ve tears in my eyes as I head to bed.

    What a great piece.
    We could tell that Benny was a good guy by your previous articles & videos, however this proves it even more.

    Glad your Dad had a blast.

  2. Ryan has become must read in the world of golf. Your stories hit close to home – and you can feel the emotion in your words. Your columns are awesome.

    Good People are out there – sometimes they are like Benny and need to be found!

  3. You continue to be the best follow on the bird app. Your reporting, writing, and finding the humanity in all people is top notch. FPC is lucky to have you and we are very lucky to get to read your stories and about your foundation and those it helps. You are a good man, Ryan!

  4. Ryan, you certainly aren’t the most famous member of the collection of writers at the FPC, but you need not take a back seat to any of your esteemed colleagues. Love your work, tho it’s sometimes hard to type through the tears when I read it. Glad your Dad had fun with you and your buds on the course…

    1. Thank you so much Mark, I’m lucky to work with, and learn from some of the best, if I can come within 1/10th of their writing I’m doing ok. Thanks again for reading.

  5. Ryan you are an original. Thank you for sharing your family’s journey with us and thank you for sharing Benny with us. So happy your Dad had fun out there.

  6. Superb as always Ryan and thank you for consistently putting things in perspective. So glad your dad had a blast with you and the guys and that they were so accommodating. These are the precious things in life! And to Benny, what a guy.

  7. Outstanding piece, Ryan, thank you for writing it. It was very moving. Benny sounds like a great guy and I’m hoping for the best for him.

  8. Another fine piece, Ryan. Great to hear that your Dad had a great time – and you and Benny as well.
    You’ve got a gift. Thank you for taking us with you along the way.

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