Duane Benson, the executive director of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation who counted legislator, cattle rancher and professional football player among his many roles, died this weekend after a five-year battle with cancer.

Benson, 73, died Saturday at Mayo Clinic Hospital in Rochester of a cancer that began in his tonsils and spread to his spine and prostate, his daughter said Monday.

Through nearly four decades in public life, Benson was universally respected as smart, savvy and measured, with a mischievous sense of humor. A longtime resident of Lanesboro in southeastern Minnesota, he played to perfection the role of the sly, country bumpkin.

Benson once said that while he wasn’t the smartest guy, “I’m really good at trying. I’m not afraid to try,” according to his daughter, Brooke Worden of St. Paul.

His tenure in the state Senate ran from 1980 to 1994 and included a stint as Republican minority leader. When that ended he became executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, a coalition of CEOs from the state’s largest companies. It was a high-level assignment that required charming and wrangling strong personalities into coalescing around policy initiatives, including a steady push for early childhood education.

In recent years, Benson was one of the original members appointed to the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA), the public body that built and now operates the $1.1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. He publicly challenged the panel’s leadership in terms of accountability and transparency. Eventually, those leaders were ousted for abusing their positions.

Throughout his career, Benson commuted to the Twin Cities from Lanesboro and showed up at the State Capitol in lived-in cowboy boots that showed the grit from horse riding and working on his cattle ranch. Worden said her dad loved his horses and cows.

“When I’d go down to visit, that was one of the first things he wanted to do — walk the pasture and show me the new calves. He named them all,” she said.

Benson was as connected in Lanesboro as he was statewide. He taught Sunday school for years at a Methodist church until it folded, then helped start Discovery Faith Community Church where he occasionally preached, she said.

“One of my earliest memories of him as a child was him reading the Bible,” Worden said, adding that it was a daily routine for him along with prayer.

The sixth of seven children, Benson was born in Belmond, Iowa, in 1945. He graduated from Hamline University in St. Paul, where he met his wife of 50 years, Melissa.

A standout linebacker for the Pipers, he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and launched a nine-year NFL career that included playing in Super Bowl II in 1968; though the Raiders lost to the Green Bay Packers, he made the first tackle of the game, Worden said. He also played with the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Oilers before retiring after the 1976 season.

Minnesota Vikings vice president Lester Bagley, who worked for Benson at the Minnesota Business Partnership for five years, called him a mentor from whom he learned the skill of reaching practical solutions without taking oneself too seriously.

“Whenever there was a tough issue to be hammered out, he was always in the room,” Bagley said, adding that he was a highly skilled negotiator who had the respect of everyone from business and political leaders to reporters.

On the Senate floor Monday, Benson’s friends and colleagues spoke about his impact on events.

“He could walk into a room and everybody would breathe easier,” said Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center. “His uncanny ability to walk into any situation, any meeting, anywhere and bring his humility, his compassion, his intelligence and most of all his humor was something we should all strive for.”

Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, said Benson left his mark despite never serving in the majority. “Being in the minority didn’t matter, he was still a voice around here,” Senjem said.

When Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, was first elected, Benson — then the Republican minority leader — helped the freshman navigate the State Capitol. Cohen said he admired Benson’s humor and knowledge and his ability to cross partisan and geographic divides to work together for the good of the state.

“He was somebody who represented the best of the Minnesota state Senate,” Cohen said.

As executive director of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, Benson and former DFL congressman Tim Penny wrote an opinion piece last year in the Mankato Free Press that laid out the case for educating low-income children who could measurably fall behind by the time they’re age one.

“We need to ensure that the most vulnerable, low-income children are in high quality learning environments early in life, before gaps grow unmanageable,” they wrote.

Worden said that her father had two vertebrae removed on Christmas Eve, but was doing well and walking daily until the pain aggressively returned in early January. Worden said the family moved Benson permanently to the hospital last week.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Benson is survived by his son, Jess, of Burnsville; his brother, Reggie, and sister, Val Jean, both of Grand Meadow, Minn.; sister, Dixie, of Rhinelander, Wis.; and four grandchildren to whom he frequently sent handwritten letters. Services will be Thursday in Lanesboro, and arrangements are pending.

Staff writer Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.

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