Ruth Benson, pioneering leader of state’s Education Department, dies at 91 | #Education

A lifelong educator with an insatiable sense of curiosity, Ruth Evelyn (Larsen Randall) Benson delighted in connecting with students.

Benson reached the pinnacle of her profession when she broke new ground as Minnesota’s first female commissioner of education from 1983 to 1990.

But along the way, it was the special connection between teacher and student that perhaps resonated the most, said her daughter, Diane Randall of Washington, D.C.

“She believed teaching is a noble profession, that teaching could make the world a better place,” her daughter said.

Benson, of Apple Valley, died Sept. 10 after a brief hospitalization. She was 91.

Born March 4, 1929, on a farm in Underwood, Iowa, she became an elementary school teacher in Iowa and Nebraska, rising to principal and administrator of Omaha Public Schools beginning in 1967.

Her daughter said she was drawn to teaching, “because she relished learning, the human interaction between teachers and students. She was delighted by her students.”

Benson received a teaching certificate in 1949 from Dana College in Nebraska, a bachelor of science degree from the University of Omaha in 1961, and a master of science degree from the University of Nebraska-Omaha in 1968.

In 1976, she earned a doctorate in educational administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she would return in the 1990s as a professor and dean.

In 1978, Benson accepted a job as assistant superintendent of Independent School District 196, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, rising to superintendent three years later.

When Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich named Benson commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education in 1983, he said she “earned a reputation for drawing students, teachers and parents into a drive for innovation and excellence.” At the time, she was only the sixth woman in the nation to lead a state department of education.

Benson was an early advocate of school choice, an open-enrollment strategy championed by the Perpich administration. A few years later, she penned a book called “School Choice: Issues and Answers.” And she urged state schools to shed American Indian mascot names decades before many opted to do so.

Current Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said Benson “was a career educator who brought a solution-driven focus to the Department of Education.”

Benson loved to travel, visiting all seven continents. She helped plan special trips for each of her eight grandchildren, including adventures to Kenya, Egypt and India. “Each child was involved in the planning and creating a budget, so she was teaching even then,” her daughter Diane said.

A devout Lutheran, Benson worshiped at Grace Lutheran Church of Apple Valley where she taught Sunday school and led other church groups. She also served on the board of directors for the Lutheran Brotherhood Mutual Fund.

Benson was preceded in death by her first husband of 24 years, Robert Dale Randall, who died in 1975, and her second husband of 10 years, Duane Benson, who died in 2008, as well as grandson Andrew Christopher Randall in 1990.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by sons, Robert Randall of Apple Valley, and Mark Randall, of Rosemount; a sister, Alvina Hjortsvang of Omaha; a brother, Irvin Larsen of Treynor, Iowa; and 14 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, memorial services will be delayed until next year when family and friends can gather in Minnesota and Iowa.

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