Benjamin Edward Bensinger, at 56, is kept very busy making millions and millions of dollars. He brought it on himself, having deliberately taken over the Brunswick Corporation and on purpose jumped its net worth from $22 million to more than $200 million, but the fact is, his career as a good old-fashioned sports nut is going to hell. A fine specimen of the breed is rare and to be cherished when come upon, even if he has strayed and taken to working too hard. So let us consider Mr. Bensinger.
He was born in Chicago in 1905, and he and his brother Bob were the fourth generation to enter the family billiard and bowling equipment business. (His own two younger boys, Roger and Peter, are the fifth generation with the company—his oldest boy, Ted, worked for Brunswick for a time, but is now in Beverly Hills, Calif., enigmatically engaged in "investments.") The business was begun unobtrusively by his great-grandfather, John Brunswick, a Swiss cabinetmaker, who obliged a customer by building him a billiard table in 1845. In 1961 his great-grandson is obliging his customers with baseball, softball, golf, tennis, basketball, football, boxing, badminton, track, wrestling, volleyball and soccer equipment, with every kind of hunting and fishing clothing, with ice skates and roller skates, bowling balls and automatic pin-setters, casting reels and spinning reels and runabouts and yachts. And school furniture and hospital equipment. The exact number of items produced by all of Brunswick's divisions has never been calculated, but guesses have ranged as high as 100,000.
The Bensinger family has been socially prominent and well-to-do for generations, but it has been only in the last seven years that the company has operated on any such scale. It had been producing primarily billiard and bowling equipment, and even there had been dragging its feet, until in 1954 B. E. took over from his elder brother Bob and whipped the placid company into a froth. He put MIT Engineer Saul Jacobson in charge of developing an automatic pinsetter in the shortest possible time; the pinsetter achieved and financed by a series of enormous and improbable loans, Brunswick got back into the bowling business in a big way. From there it expanded into other areas, buying up such thriving, sturdy companies as MacGregor Sport Products and Owens Yacht, and it now has arrived at a status more of empire than family business. The whole Brunswick complex as it exists at present is an extension of one man's astounding energy and drive; it is a monument to Bensinger and the American system of business management—and it is interfering with his duck calling.
Bensinger rides, hunts and fishes. He has fought bulls on Juan Belmonte's ranch and has run with them in Pamplona. He golfs and plays tennis and skis, shoots billiards, bowls, flies airplanes and, of course, calls ducks. In between, he goes to games to watch other people do things.
"I like things that are challenges," Bensinger said the other day, sitting quietly, as he rarely does, in the bullfight room of his North Shore apartment. "I spent hours and hours with phonograph records, learning how to blow that duck call. I got pretty good at it. I was invited to go to the Stuttgart duck-calling contest," he said, pleased. "About the airplanes," he went on, "during the war the factory in Muskegon, Mich. was doing a lot of defense work. We were building drone aircraft—plywood, twin-engine. We had to hire a lot of new people, and the foremen and superintendents had to know what was going on. So we arranged with the local high school to have classes a few nights a week—classes in fundamentals about planes, building planes, etc. I went originally just to set an example—if the boss doesn't put himself out, who the hell else is going to?—and I got interested and started taking flying lessons in off hours. It was still light at 6 o'clock, and I went after work if I didn't have classes or anything. I went from a single engine to a little more advanced, and a little more advanced, and when I got my license and read a lot of books I went for Link training. "This required getting to Grand Rapids and back in time to start work at 8 a.m. After the single-engine rating, he got his multi-engine rating and qualified for a seaplane rating, and then about 1947 he applied the same thoroughness to dropping the whole thing. "I figured that unless I could fly a couple of hundred hours a year I ought to quit," he said, and he quit.
"When they went fishing," says his boy Peter of B. E. and his friends, "these guys would show up, bank presidents and one thing and another, and Dad would give casting lessons on the lawn." This period is clearly recalled by Mrs. Bensinger as well—in terms of ladders and flies to be extracted from the neighbors' trees.
Linda Bensinger, the former Linda Galston of Woodmere, Long Island, N.Y., is a woman triumphantly more beautiful as a grandmother of six than her pictures show her to have been as a girl. For a woman who has said restrainedly, "I don't really have to sit for 99 years fishing in a boat," and who is inclined to look wistfully over her shoulder at a nightclub as she's being borne away into the Canadian wilds, she has held up splendidly under the 33 years of her marriage. She went skiing and caught cold on her honeymoon, and motherhood found her regularly in the stands at Wrigley Field next to B. E., the children on their laps, watching the Bears. "She was sort of a widow during certain seasons," as Roger puts it—certainly the duck-and goose-hunting seasons. B. E. has fished this hemisphere from the Chilean Andes to Alaska and spot-fished the rest of the world. Big game hunting has never been his passion; his particular fondness is for birds. "I love to shoot birds. I love to just see birds," he says, and with his cronies he used to disappear regularly into Canada for goose and duck.
"They were dirt-and-shovel, dig-your-own-pit trips," Roger recalls. "They would fill up the station wagon with stuff and go. They were very portable, and they moved. They would get in the car early in the morning and sight a flight of geese, and then they'd try to figure out where the geese would be the next day. They'd make their pits and camouflage them and hope the geese would be there in the morning. I remember one year they had a chauffeur and took a pneumatic drill to dig the pits."
"That was my father's chauffeur," B. E. explained. "He's retired now—he loved everything about hunting, so he used to go with us." As for the drill, that made its appearance fairly late in the game. "It's all right when you're young, you can knock yourself out digging through it, but that ground is frozen solid after you get down two or three feet. It never thaws. And the fun was fooling the geese and making a perfect pit. I used to really love it. I remember the first time I took Roger duck hunting—I wasn't sure he'd like it. I had a portable radio with me, to hear some football games. It happened to be a good day, and the ducks came in so beautifully that I got all excited and dropped the Zenith worldwide gadget off my lap and into the marsh. But Roger got some ducks, and he loved it."