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Bethel Bestows Fifth Presidential Medal of Honor

Bethel’s Benson Great Hall is named for Donald E. Benson, but his impact extends far beyond Bethel’s renowned performance hall. That’s why the longtime Bethel Foundation board member was awarded the fifth Presidential Medal of Honor.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

July 26, 2019 | 12:01 p.m.

Donald E. Benson

Donald E. Benson, a longtime Bethel supporter and member of the Bethel Foundation Board of Governors, received Bethel’s fifth Presidential Medal of Honor award. Bethel’s Benson Great Hall is named for Benson.

Donald E. Benson is a name all Bethel students know thanks to his namesake Benson Great Hall. But his contributions to Bethel University extend far beyond Bethel’s renowned concert hall. Benson has left an indelible mark on Bethel by helping form the Bethel Foundation and chairing its Board of Governors for 28 years. For his many contributions and continued support of the university, Benson received one of the institution’s highest distinctions: the Presidential Medal of Honor. He became just the fifth recipient of the award in Bethel’s history.

Benson, who only recently retired from his role with the Bethel Foundation, is quick to credit others. “Don’t give me credit for anything, because we were a team,” he says. “And the team members were rooted in the history and meaning of Bethel.” But Foundation Executive Director and Corporate Counsel Angie Hjelle notes that while Benson is a humble, modest man, his contributions to Bethel can’t be overlooked, and he remains a lead and key philanthropist for Bethel. “He really has been one of the instrumental people that has transformed the campus,” she says.

Benson’s ties to Bethel date to his childhood in the 1930s, when he attended First Swedish Baptist Church—now Bethlehem Baptist Church—and participated in church events hosted at Bethel. His older brother attended Bethel for one year as a tuition gift through their church. After a stint in the U.S. Army, Benson completed a business degree at a Twin Cities university. Following a 13-year career as a CPA, he started a successful business career and worked closely with the late Carl R. Pohlad, a renowned Twin Cities businessman and owner of the Minnesota Twins. While Benson was working for Pohlad’s Marquette Financial Companies as an executive vice president and a board member, former Bethel President George Brushaber approached him about serving on the newly-formed Bethel Foundation board.

Benson agreed and helped found the Bethel Foundation, which Bethel incorporated in 1971, and he became one of its first board members. The Bethel Foundation was born out of the Tax Reform Act of 1969, and it was established to provide financial stability and diversification to the board. At that time, Hjelle notes, most Bethel Board of Trustees members had to be affiliated with the Baptist General Conference—now Converge—and the Foundation allowed Bethel to seek out leaders and expertise from the private sector beyond the conference.

Donald E. Benson

Donald E. Benson, center, poses with the rest of the Bethel Foundation Board of Governors and past Bethel President George Brushaber (standing, far right), who approached Benson about serving on the board, in the board’s early days.

As Benson looks back, he praises the expertise that Rholan Larson, Gunnar Kronholm, Harvey DeVries, and Warren Eastlund brought to the Board of Governors. “We were a force, so to speak,” he says. Hjelle says Benson brought valuable business experience to the board. Through his financial acumen, Benson helped the Foundation shepherd nonliquid gifts to Bethel, which included buildings and property. With an eye toward economic trends, Benson and the Foundation’s Board of Governors provided insight as Bethel expanded its program offerings in fields like business and the sciences with outcomes and careers in mind.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Benson’s leadership and support proved vital as Bethel built Benson Great Hall. Hjelle says the Great Hall transformed Bethel as one of its first campus centers. “It’s been a very significant addition to our campus,” she says. Benson is proud to see the Great Hall remain a centerpiece of Bethel’s campus that also serves the community beyond Bethel. Along with numerous Bethel events, the hall is rented out for many non-Bethel events and concerts. Benson attends Bethel’s Festival of Christmas each year and, as a season ticket holder of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, he attends the group’s four annual appearances in Benson Great Hall. At each event, Benson says he enjoys counting the number of people in attendance, and he still takes in the hall’s beauty during each visit. “I get a chill every time I look at the organ,” he says.

Near the Great Hall, Bethel’s Lundquist Community Life Center also includes the Roberta Mann Benson Welcome Center, named for Benson’s late wife.

Benson’s ties to Bethel have grown over the years. His daughters, Linda and Nancy, both attended Bethel, as did his granddaughter Laura and her husband. Benson commends Brushaber and President Jay Barnes for their strong leadership and for building on Bethel's strong reputation. “I’ve always supported Bethel because I believed in Bethel,” Benson says.
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