Tom Brokaw called them the greatest generation and I tend to agree with him. I am biased as my parents, aunts, uncles and their friends are that generation.
I was born when my parents were in their late thirties. Most of my friends parents were ten to fifteen years younger than mine and even as a kid, I noticed a difference. As I got older I realized it was the values and manners they taught my sister and I. I am not saying that I always applied what I was taught, but I knew right from wrong and was held accountable for my actions.
Today we laid my bro-in-laws father to rest. I could try to tell you about him, but it is much easier to let his obituary do it.
Donald Benjamin; longtime teacher of social graces, ballroom dance
By Blanca Gonzalez
Union-Tribune Staff Writer
2:00 a.m. October 22, 2009
Donald Benjamin (U-T file photo)
Society may have become less formal and more cynical in the past 50 years, but good manners and poise never went out of style for Donald Benjamin and the thousands of students who took his classes.
Mr. Benjamin taught generations of San Diegans ballroom dance, social graces and that there is never any excuse to hurt another person's feelings.
Mr. Benjamin started the dance and etiquette classes with about 35 sixth-graders in 1954 in Del Mar. It was a moonlighting gig for him at the time, a way to earn extra money to support his young family. The popularity of his classes eventually led him to a new full-time career as a dance teacher, social mentor and choreographer for cotillions.
Mr. Benjamin died of pneumonia Oct. 14 in San Diego. He was 89.
“He started quite a legacy for San Diego,” said Katy Dessent, a longtime local volunteer active with arts groups. “He was a true gentleman. He knew manners and he really wanted to pass that on to the next generation.”
Dessent's two daughters, now grown, were among the many students who learned about good, old-fashioned social graces from him at Mr. Benjamin's San Diego Junior Cotillion, an enterprise that continues today under the direction of his son Peter. The boys and girls in Mr. Benjamin's class learned to overcome any awkwardness of being with the opposite sex by making small talk while dancing.
Mr. Benjamin believed that sixth grade was a good time to teach youths because they were not yet sophisticated but were not little children, Dessent said.
“He was respectful to the kids and set a good example,” she said.
Mr. Benjamin also served as director of the La Jolla Debutante Ball and other formal events. Phyllis Parrish, past president and committee chairwoman of the ball, said Mr. Benjamin was an intricate part of the charity ball.
“I believe San Diego is a much better place due to Mr. Benjamin,” Parrish said. “He taught so many young people ... helping them get over their shyness, instilling a lot of values and social graces.”
In a 1984 interview with The Tribune, Mr. Benjamin talked about teaching the delicate process of socialization to his students.
“It's a great, big world out there, and they've got to learn how to confront it,” he said. “I'll teach them how to dance, all right, but that's not the most important lesson taught here. It's my job to make them feel socially at ease in myriad social situations and to help them feel good about themselves.”
Mr. Benjamin was born March 19, 1920, in Monongahela, Pa., to Charles and Lillian Benjamin. He was 4 when his mother died, and he was raised by his father and grandmother.
He grew up in Pittsburgh, attended the University of Missouri and served in the Army Air Forces during World War II. He married the former Elinore “Ellie” Katzka of New York, and they moved to San Diego in the 1950s.
Mr. Benjamin was working in public relations in 1954 when he decided to augment his income by offering dancing lessons. His first class was in Del Mar, but he soon was teaching thousands of students in Point Loma, La Mesa and Poway. His son joined him in teaching classes in 1983, expanding the etiquette outreach throughout the county.
In addition to his dance and etiquette classes, Mr. Benjamin hosted a local television show called “Mr. Benjamin Presents,” said Peter Benjamin. The youth talent show ran from 1969 to 1972, he said.
Mr. Benjamin, a longtime supporter of the local arts scene, was an honorary member of the San Diego Youth Symphony. He also served on the board of the San Diego Epilepsy Society. He volunteered regularly with Meals on Wheels and Mama's Kitchen.
Mr. Benjamin is survived by his sons, Lee of San Antonio, Todd of London and Peter of San Diego; and three grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife.
Services will be at 2 p.m. Oct. 29 at Congregation Beth Israel, 9001 Towne Centre Drive, University City, with burial immediately following at El Camino Memorial Park, 5600 Carroll Canyon Road, San Diego.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to San Diego Hospice Foundation, 4311 Third Ave., San Diego, CA 92103.
At my sisters wedding, he pulled all the men aside and told us that our jackets and ties were to remain on at all times. Not one of us was without a jacket or tie that night. To this day, I never take off my jacket or tie until I get home.
I have many friends that attended his class and all these years later they still talk about how what they learned is still applied today. It is estimated that 45,000 kids have attended his classes.
When I first met him he invited me to a party he was having. It was a wine and cheese party. Not exactly my scene, but his son was marrying my sister, so I was obligated to attend. My dad and I were not wine drinkers and were not too excited about the party.
As we arrived at his house we noticed all the different wines and were trying to find one that tasted like beer. Mr. Benjamin called me into the kitchen and pointed out a case of beer that he had purchased for my dad and I.
For fifteen years we spent Thanksgiving at his house and he always bought beer for us, even after my dad died and I quit drinking.
Rest in peace Mr. Benjamin. Thanksgiving won't be the same without you.