Meyer Bender and his family

The rock parks at Cornell are a gift of Meyer “Mike” Bender '29 and his family, whose legacy at Cornell now spans four generations.

One could say that the Bender family has been a rock at Cornell. Mike was the fourth of seven children, and the first born in the United States to Russian Jewish immigrants. He received a scholarship to attend Cornell and arrived in Ithaca in 1925 with only the clothes on his back, a razor-sharp mind, and the determination to succeed. Mike worked his way through Cornell waiting tables at the “rich” sororities and joined the ROTC. Geology became a passion for Mike at Cornell. He was befriended by a Geology professor and took 23 courses (yes, 23!) in the department with such titles as An older man in the background with three young children in front of him. The older man is Meyer Bender and the three children are his grandchildren Evan, Sharon, and Lee.Crystallography, Mineralogy, and Sedimentary Petrography.

When he graduated from Cornell in 1929 (six months before the stock market crash), Mike had difficulty finding a job in New York City as a young Jewish man. He was able to find work with the City of New York, helping to build and design subway tunnels. He went to law school at night. But again, because of latent anti-Semitism, he realized the barriers to entry were enormous, and in his entrepreneurial spirit, he struck out on his own in the insurance field, establishing his own practice. He was a progenitor of the group insurance concept—which of course is standard today—and built a flourishing firm insuring hospitals, teamsters, and school districts, as well as individuals. And he always kept up with his Cornell classmates and professors.

He would speak with them from all over the globe. He always said that Cornell set him on the right path in life. Mike became president of his class and never missed a reunion or Cornell activity in New York. He always stressed giving back, and to continue his strong commitment to the Geology Department, he dedicated a rock garden (in memory of his parents and his wife Gertrude’s parents), which was located on the Engineering Quad in front of Kimball-Thurston Hall. When Snee Hall was built, he donated the rock garden at the entrance to the building, and inside Snee he donated the indoor rock museum, dedicating it to his Class of ‘29 classmates, and several other plaques in the building and various rooms. He also donated funds for a cabin in the Adirondacks, which is used for research. In the words of his grandson Lee Bender ‘84, “Giving is a rock garden is a pretty smart thing, when you think about it, to show the utmost commitment and dedication, for eternity.”

As if that weren’t enough, the Bender legacy lives on with the Meyer Bender ‘29 Scholarship in the Geology Department, established by his son Stephen Bender ‘58. Each year, the scholarship is awarded to a graduate student chosen for his or her outstanding scholarship who exemplifies a dedication to Cornell, as well as the ability “to communicate with one’s fellow with wit, sharpness of mind, succinctly, with clarity, yet sensitive to human needs.” Stephen and his sister Alice Bender Krausner donated the rock garden in front of 104 West (the Center for Jewish Living), continuing the tradition established by their father. Lee Bender ‘84, Dr. Evan Bender ‘86, and Sharon Bender ‘90 represent the third generation of Benders at Cornell; Lee’s son Justin Bender ‘15 (a Policy Analysis and Management major in the College of Human Ecology) is the fourth.