From golf to racehorses: The many lives of Austinite Walter Benson, 103
As he was leaving Lions Municipal Golf Course on a sunny November day, Walter Benson Jr., 103, introduced himself to Walter Rein, 7, who carried a golf bag almost as tall as himself.
“We both have the same name,” the elder Walter said. “And I was exactly your age when my father brought me here to see Muny for the first time, while it was being built.”
Your math is correct: That was 1924.
Over the course of more than a century, Austinites have known Benson as many things. Among them: adventurous youth, World War II veteran, textbook publisher, thoroughbred breeder and polished social dancer.
Yet it has been his legendary golf game that has followed Benson through much of his life.
In 1899, his father, Walter Benson Sr., served on the founding board of the Austin Country Club when it was located at the Hancock Golf Course on Red River Street. Benson later caddied for his father and learned the game at his side.
He excelled as a player on the Austin High School golf team. Later, at the University of Texas, he was a student of fabled Harvey Penick, and he won multiple amateur championships. Hole No. 3 at Muny is named after Benson.
Penick, in fact, inscribed a personal copy of his bestselling “Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book: Lessons and Teachings From a Life in Golf,” written with Bud Shrake, with the following note, including a reference to Houston-born Jimmy Demaret, a professional golfer who won 31 PGA Tour events, including three wins at the Masters, with titles in 1940, 1947 and 1950:
“7/15/92. To Walter Benson whose association I have enjoyed for many years: since a small boy: also who Jimmy Demaret told me: ‘Best golfer in Texas!’ I hope you enjoy this book. I have many happy memories of our association. Sincerely, Harvey Penick.”
An Austin boy
Walter S. Benson Jr. was born October 24, 1917, in Austin to Florence Brownlee Benson and Walter S. Benson Sr.
“Dad worked for Wells Fargo in Mexico City back when it was an express company, not a bank,” says Benson, whose paternal grandparents were schoolteachers. In the 1930s, Benson’s father partnered with his brother, Matt Benson, on a double business at 109 E. Fifth St. — W.S. Benson & Co., a publishing house, and Benson Motor Co., a dealership that sold Studebakers.
A mural on the side of that handsome, arched building still reads “Benson Motor Co.”
Benson’s mother’s people came from Burnet. He was raised with a half-sister, Winifred, and a full sister, Florence. His father named Winflo Drive in Old West Austin after his daughters.
“It was a subdivision of the old Nalle property,” Benson says. “My father purchased it from the Nalles.”
That particular Nalle mansion — there has been more than one for the still-prominent family — stood just east of the surviving Flower Hill residence on West Sixth, now home to an urban homestead museum. The Benson family lived on Castle Hill off West 12th Street, then later at 1504 West Lynn in a simple two-story house that still stands.
He attended Pease Elementary — “back when T.A. Brown was principal” — and then Allan Junior High when it was housed at East Ninth and Trinity streets in an imposing red brick building that burned down in 1956. He graduated from Austin High after the 11th grade in 1934.
“They didn’t have 12 grades,” Benson says. “Just 11.”
Benson describes himself as a good student but not exceptional, one who sought out adventures with boys his age.
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“I bought a Model T Ford for $25,” he says. “I rebuilt it to make a racer out of it. I called it the ‘Miracle Ride.’”
During the summers of 1934-1936, Benson attended a summer school at the Culver Military Academy in Indiana for cavalry training. The American military, however, had pretty much dispensed with mounted soldiers by the time he signed up for service during World War II. Benson never lost his love for horses, though, and tends to two at a small farm in Niederwald south of Austin.
In high school, Benson was “too slender” for football but just right for golf.
“I liked the competition and the outdoors,” Benson says of the sport. “Harvey Penick had been the pro at the country club when I was young, and he also coached the UT golf team.”
Benson studied business administration and electrical engineering at UT. Then, when World War II came along, he trained to repair crucial airplane radios. After further military training, the second lieutenant was stationed at Bassingbourn Air Base near Cambridge, U.K.
“I saw Gen. Eisenhower just before the invasion of Normandy,” Benson recalls. “He came through group headquarters. He was so well respected.”
While his shifts repairing radios kept him busy during the war, he had his share of fun on leave. He and his buddies rode their bicycles to local dances anywhere within a 30-mile radius of the base. He also played the St. Andrews Golf Course in Scotland, considered the oldest in the world and an ultimate destination for any golfer. He also played at Gog Magog Golf Club, a course right outside of Cambridge named after the biblical giants.
He left the service with the rank of captain at Davis Mountain Air Base in Tucson, Ariz., in 1945.
In the same year, he met his wife, Frances Bird Bolton, in Austin while he was finishing up his engineering degree. From Jacksonville, Texas, Bolton was visiting a friend in Austin when they first met. They had two children: Barbara Bolton Benson and Walter S. Benson III. Frances Bird Bolton died in 2005.
Making a life of it
Despite graduate study in engineering with Westinghouse Electric in Pittsburgh, Benson returned to Austin to help manage and ultimately to take over his father’s publishing business, which specialized in textbooks.
“In 1908, my father represented Anna Pennybacker,” he says, “and got her ‘A History of Texas for Schools’ through the State Board of Education.”
Since Texas is one of the few states that require kids to study the history of the state — for a long time, just in the seventh grade and, since the 1960s, in the fourth grade as well — this kind of contract meant the family business remained profitable. During his tenure, Benson Jr. managed to get several more modern Texas history textbooks passed as well.
Interviewed at a distance through masks on his girlfriend’s spreading deck in the Balcones neighborhood, Benson, who reads my Think, Texas column, proudly presented me with copies of three of his modern Texas history textbooks. He kept his copy of the 1908 Pennybacker, which is a collectible.
Anna Pennybacker, by the way, was a teacher, public speaker and suffragist whose first book on Texas history came out in 1888. Austin’s Pennybacker Bridge over Lake Austin, located next to the current location of the Austin Country Club, is named for her son, engineer and early Texas Highway Department bridge designer Percy Pennybacker Jr.
On the side, Benson raised racehorses.
“After I got up into my 70s, I spent more time at the horse farm,” he says. “In the 1980s, we got parimutuel betting passed by the Texas Legislature. I was the third official member of the Texas Thoroughbred Breeders Association. My uncle had a ranch between Burnet and Marble Falls, and he raised thoroughbreds. That’s how I got involved in the breeding industry.”
Benson’s horses won more than 50 races.
Another of his passions has been dance.
“Oh, my gosh, he was so smooth and fast,” says girlfriend Nancy Wilson, who is widowed. “Everybody said so. We’d be at the High Ball on South Lamar every Monday night when they had a fantastic big band, Republic of Texas, with all the horns.”
The long game
Benson twice won the Austin City Championship, twice the Firecracker Invitational and twice the Harvey Penick Invitational. He was known for powerful drives, not for overly accurate putting.
“I patterned my game after Ed White, who won the National Intercollegiate Championship before World War II,” Benson says. “So I put my emphasis on the long game instead of the short. I was fortunate to win the tournaments that I did.”
Asked about particular courses, Benson does not launch into long tales of golfing past but rather sticks to the most cogent memories.
“St. Andrews is difficult due to its seaside location,” he says. “The wind blew hard.”
Several of his memories take him back to the first of three Austin Country Club locations, when the front nine were located at the current Hancock Golf Course and the back nine were laid out where Hancock Center retail complex now rises.
“Jimmy Demaret came up from Houston and shot a 60 to set a course record,” Benson recalls. “That’s 10 below par. I think I shot a 72 that day. My lowest there was 63.”
He describes how golfers got from the front nine to the back nine, a puzzle this reporter has tried to solve for decades.
“You got to the very corner of the property and shot the ball across Red River Street,” he says, laughing.
Benson thought the second country club location on Riverside Drive an excellent course.
“It lacked some sand traps,” he says. “They never got around to it.”
His favorite course was the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth.
“The first tournament there was an amateur match play,” he says. “In the morning, I played 19 holes against 'Shorty’ Long because there was an extra tie-breaker hole. In the afternoon, I played 21 holes against Don Schumacher.
“I was an unknown player, and the local news headline read: ‘Giant killer hits town!’”