Nathan Benderson, a high school dropout who turned painful Depression-era family memories into a highly successful business career that made him the founder of Buffalo's most prominent real-estate empire, died early Saturday in Sarasota Memorial Hospital.
Mr. Benderson, who suffered a stroke Tuesday, was 94.
Over nearly eight decades -- beginning when he was a teenager in the midst of the Great Depression -- Mr. Benderson started several companies from scratch and transformed the real-estate landscape in Western New York, constructing many retail plazas and office buildings that still exist today. Almost an entire block of Delaware Avenue was built by Mr. Benderson.
He developed office buildings for major corporations around the Northeast and brought retail outlet malls to Niagara Falls and a half-dozen other cities across the country.
His major local projects included Delaware Consumer Square, Boulevard Consumer Square, Thruway Mall, Union Consumer Square and the Niagara Falls outlets. At one point, he owned more than 20 million square feet of commercial space nationwide, and paid more property taxes than any other property owner in Erie County.
Schooled during the Depression, Mr. Benderson was cautious in his projects and didn't build lavish buildings. He valued loyalty and hard work and was viewed as a tough, inquisitive negotiator and a determined businessman. He also was shy and modest about his achievements and wealth, and lived accordingly.
"A self-made man of pure and clear values, my father was a man of great warmth and modesty," said his son, Randy, president of Benderson Development Co. "He was a visionary who had the gift of making the complicated understandable."
Behind the scenes, Mr. Benderson was a generous donor to philanthropic causes and became the largest donor ever to Buffalo's Jewish community, giving millions of dollars over many years. The Jewish Community Center's suburban campus in Amherst is named for him.
"Nate was, without question, one of the most generous, creative and engaged donors I've ever had the privilege of working with in over 30 years of philanthropy," said Peter Fleischmann, director of the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies. "The scope and depth of his generosity are on a scale that is unmatched in Western New York."
The full extent is only now becoming known.
Mr. Benderson set up a trust with the funds to go to charities upon his death, said Jordan Levy, chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., and a lifelong friend of the Benderson family.
The Benderson Family Life Insurance Legacy Initiative is in excess of $130 million and will go to whatever charities the family decides to support, Levy said.
"It all has to go to charity," Levy said.
"What people don't know is 90 percent of his life the last 25 years was all about charity," Levy said, "but he wasn't the kind of guy to get up and have a press conference to talk about it."
The Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2004, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo created the Nathan Benderson Leadership Award. He also was the lead donor of the Weinberg Campus at each stage of its development; the Total Aging In Place programs now are located in the Benderson Village.
Mr. Benderson created a $2 million endowment for programs at Buffalo's Johnnie B. Wiley amateur sports complex. He also was a major benefactor for Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Buffalo Zoo, SPCA Serving Erie County, Variety Club, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Food Bank of Western New York and Center for Hospice and Palliative Care.
A Buffalo native, Mr. Benderson was known as "Sonny" when he was young. When he was 12, his mother sold all the stock she had inherited from her parents, but his father convinced her to buy it back. A week later, in October 1929, the stock market crashed, and the family ultimately lost its home, leaving his father devastated.
Nevertheless, Mr. Benderson was always an entrepreneur, unafraid of risks. He sold Christmas tinsel in his grandfather's cigar store, fireworks for the Fourth of July and flowers from his mother's garden, according to old newspaper stories and Dick Hirsch's biography "The Bubble Didn't Burst: The Story of Nathan Benderson."
He attended both Bennett and Lafayette high schools but never graduated. Instead, before the age of 16, he started his first company -- Bison Bottle Co. -- which specialized in buying and reselling beer bottles. On one day alone in 1933, he bought 1.8 million empty bottles from Phoenix Brewery, which viewed them as obsolete, and resold them. At age 18, he provided the down payment allowing his parents to once again own a home.
When he was 21, he started Niagara Dry Beverage Co., a soft drink business on Buffalo's East Side that made "Old Favorite" root beer. But his new career was interrupted by World War II. Drafted into the Army in 1941, Mr. Benderson served in Bermuda and stateside throughout the war.
Mr. Benderson entered the real estate business in 1951, when he bought the eight-building Schreiber Brewery on Fillmore Avenue at a foreclosure auction for $275,000, before selling off all the equipment and beer and redeveloping the property.
Over the next two decades, Mr. Benderson developed office buildings for corporate tenants such as MetLife, John Hancock, Pitney Bowes and IBM all over the Northeast.
He also bought and demolished dilapidated buildings along Delaware Avenue, particularly between Allen and North streets, putting up new office buildings and other facilities -- including the Holiday Inn -- that stand today. By 1958, his company's property assets totaled $14.5 million.
In later life, Mr. Benderson took special pride and enjoyment in working with his sons and grandchildren.
In 1967, after a business professor gave his eldest son, Ronny, a failing grade on a business plan he wrote for a class project, Mr. Benderson let his son test the idea anyway. That was the start of Delta Sonic Car Wash.
More than a decade later, he and his youngest son, Randy, began making plans for the Niagara Factory Outlet Mall, which opened in 1982. Over the next decade, Mr. Benderson brought outlet malls to Florida, Virginia, Arizona, California, Oregon and Idaho.
He bought a condominium on Longboat Key in Florida in 1993, and started developing commercial retail property in the Sarasota area. A decade later, he moved his company's headquarters to Florida, but maintained regional headquarters and major assets in Buffalo.
His company later sold nearly 40 percent of its Northeast properties to a Cleveland company for $2.3 billion, including retail plazas in Buffalo -- only to buy many of them back a few years later for a profit.
In 2000, The Buffalo News named Mr. Benderson one of the top 10 most influential business people in the past century.
Survivors include his wife, the former Dora Broder; three sons, Ronald, Robert and Randy; and a longtime companion, Anne M. Virag.
The funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday in Temple Beth Zion, 805 Delaware Ave., Buffalo.
News Staff Reporters Gene Warner and Jay Rey contributed to this report.