Cornerstone Homes Presents an Interview with Jack Benson, age 95
By Deborah Garrett
Everett Benson has been called “Jack” for as long as he can remember…and has no idea why!
At age 95 and looking decades younger, I believe Jack’s longevity is due to a positive spirit and a love of life through faith, family and service.
Everett Zee Benson was born in Lenox, Iowa in 1918. He grew up in a large family of nine children. He attended classes in the brick school building that housed elementary grades through 12th grade, where he says his favorite subject was arithmetic. His mother was a hardworking homemaker, excellent cook, known for her cakes and pies, as well as “turning out the whites in town” for many families. Jack’s father was noted for wearing an immaculate laundered shirt with his bib overalls each work day on the railroad, thanks to his wife. He was a fireman and then later started a trucking business with 19 Model T trucks, delivering oil products, ice, livestock and many other products to farms and businesses in Lenox. Jack remembers they even moved a family to the West Coast.
Jack’s father passed away in 1925 and his mother struggled with trying to raise so many children. One day, one of Jack’s brothers said to him “Pack your bag. We’re going to California!” They went to live with an older brother who had previously moved to Los Angeles. Jack finished his high school education at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, graduating in June of 1936.
After graduation, Jack worked full time for his uncle, Albert T. Balzer, who owned a gourmet market called Balzer’s on Larchmont Boulevard in Los Angeles. Balzer’s Market catered to the elite neighborhoods, serving movie stars and wealthy patrons in the Hollywood area. Famous regular customers included Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock. Balzer had a fleet of delivery trucks to transport groceries to their customers.
Jack worked in the produce department at Balzer’s and would get up at 4:00 a.m. to go to the wholesale market and choose the best fruits and vegetables for the store. He worked alongside his cousin, Robert Lawrence Balzer, who later went on to become America’s first wine writer. Robert Balzer began buying wine for the store in post-prohibition 1936. He wrote a wine column in the LA Times for three decades and became a major influence for the wine industry in California.
Balzer’s purveyed quality groceries to the “carriage trade” of Windsor Square and Hancock Park. Business was primarily conducted by charge and delivery. Customers bought in quantity to stock the pantries in large homes. Canned goods were sold by the case; sugar and flour in 100- and 200-pound sacks. The store sold a ton of cheddar each month. (Larchmont Chronicle, 2003)
Jack met his wife on a blind date on April Fool’s Day, 1938. Jane Rowe, a friend at Wilshire Christian Church, convinced him to meet an intelligent, beautiful friend of hers named Carmen. Jack’s first impression of Carmen was that she was brilliant. She had been valedictorian of her high school class and when Jack met her, she was studying journalism and drama at LA City College.
They married in March of 1939, with mutual friend Jane Rowe as Maid of Honor and her husband Jim Rowe as Best Man. Jack continued working for his uncle and learning the grocery business until 1942 when he began his first business venture with a vegetable department at Melrose Market.
In 1943, Jack was drafted into the Army. His unit was the 70th Infantry Division, knows as the Trailblazers. Jack was sent to Camp Adair in Oregon for basic training. Carmen followed soon after. When Jack was sent to Quartermaster training at Camp Lee, Virginia in 1944, Carmen returned back to Southern California as she was “in the family way.” Their daughter Bonnie was born in November, 1944. Because of a complication during delivery, Jack was granted a leave to go home and he was able to see his wife and daughter before he was sent overseas.
Jack’s unit was sent overseas in late 1944/early 1945. They arrived in Marseilles and moved by road and rail to Northeastern France and then Germany. The Quartermaster Company was responsible for providing supplies and provisions for the troops. When asked “who can type?” Jack said he could and became Supply Staff Sergeant with an office and a typewriter. He sent photos and typewritten letters to Carmen from his travels. He still has that typewriter.
Jack’s army unit returned to the United States in October 1945, and he was reunited with his wife and daughter. He went back to work at Balzer’s Market. In 1950, after 11 years of marriage, Jack and Carmen bought their first car…a brand new 1950 Chevrolet.
In 1956, Jack and Carmen operated Thriftway Market in South Gate. A few years later, in 1961, they purchased a store in Downey and named it Benson’s Market. Carmen was the bookkeeper and controller for both stores. Jack found the grocery business very interesting and he enjoyed meeting people and the variety of the business. His uncle instilled in him the basic principles by which his own business life had been rewarded…an unswerving devotion to honest business ethics and quality. In 1963, Bonnie was dating a handsome young man named Vince. When Jack needed a trustworthy employee (and Vince needed flexible working hours while attending college), Vince was hired to work at Benson’s Market. Carmen called him “Vince the Prince.” Bonnie and Vince married in 1964.
Four years later, Jack’s first grandchild was born. Bonnie and Vince lived across the street from Jack and Carmen in South Gate. Grand-daughter Carrie was lucky to have her grandparents so close. Carmen taught Carrie to call her “Baba,” an Eastern European name for grandmother. Jack received an unconventional nickname as well, but one that came directly from Carrie. When Bonnie would open her back door and call out “Mom,” it was Jack that usually would come out to take Carrie for her stroller ride. Carrie associated her grandpa with that name and started calling him “Ma.” He’s been “Ma” ever since to all his grandchildren!
In addition to walking his grand-daughter, Jack was the chief dishwasher of the household, especially at holiday dinners. Jack and Carmen moved to Downey in 1970. They continued to run Benson’s Market until 1978 when they retired.
Both Jack and Carmen were very active in their churches throughout the years. Jack served as a Youth Director and a Deacon at Wilshire Christian Church. Carmen worked at Christian Chapel in South Gate as a church secretary and editor of a church publication. She also wrote four religious books: The Grace and Glory of God, Supernatural Dreams and Visions of the Bible, What about Us Who Are Not Healed, and Seven Splendid Moments. Later in life they were members of Florence Avenue Foursquare Church.
During Jack’s basic training in the Army, he was struck by how many fellow servicemen lacked a strong foundation in faith. He wrote a letter to his pastor at Wilshire Christian Church which was published in one of the church newsletters. I think it is worthy of repeating.
“Dr. Braden, as I train to be a soldier and face the realities of war, I realize as never before the great need of Christian Education. If the people of Wilshire could only live in the barracks for one week with my comrades, there would be no empty pews in the churches.
The majority of these men are missing the most important thing in their lives, and that is Christ. Often as I have been sitting on my locker in our barracks having my daily devotional, many comments have come from different corners of the room. Some have awkwardly volunteered that they used to attend Sunday School every Sunday, but now that this new life has taken hold of them and changed their environment, they too have changed. Although as time went on, I found they have a great deal of respect for one who tries to live a Christian life. I know that when this particular part of the army enters into a combat zone, it will be no effort at all for the men to get their Bibles out of their lockers and seek the guiding hand of God. My prayers are that they will not take the chance of waiting until the last thing. For myself, I have grown to like the army, and know that God is constantly watching over us.
My idea toward bringing about a total Christian World is through the younger generation. The Church’s responsibility, to me, is to make an all-out effort toward educating the Youth of America. I feel that the Bible should be taught in the Primary and Grade Schools in order to start the new generation out in the right direction. I am in favor of adding another “R,” Religion, to our educational system. Maybe this sounds a little out of place, but if we have to shed blood in righting a wrong, why can’t we start righting that wrong now by planting the right seeds in the minds of our children in order to prevent such a disaster occurring to another generation?” -- Jack Benson, 1943
Jack and Carmen shared their strong faith and devotion to family. They enjoyed 61 years of marriage before Carmen passed away on December 24, 2000. Through the years, they prayed each day for family and friends and Jack continues that to this day. He is very close to his daughter Bonnie and son-in-law Vince and their children. As all three of his grandchildren were growing up, Jack was an avid fan at their activities, especially Steve’s and Matt’s baseball games from Little League to high school.
And now he enjoys spending time with their families and his great-grandchildren, as well as watching for his grandson Steve on TV, a Captain/Paramedic and currently the Public Information Officer for the Orange County Fire Authority.
Jack’s strong faith and positive outlook are an inspiration. He is often heard saying, “This is the best day of my life!” and he not only prays daily for his own family but for his Cornerstone family as well. We are happy to have Jack as a resident of Cornerstone Homes and can’t wait to celebrate his 100th birthday!
-- Deborah Garrett is a professional singer and owner of Flashback Music Memories. Her company provides memory-enhancing music and activities to the elderly. Deborah is proud to partner with Cornerstone Homes to give their residents weekly activity sessions at all three locations. Learn more at www.flashbackmusicmemories.com.