N. Lawrence (Larry) Bentson made his radio debut at age 12, when he starred in a children's show broadcast on Twin Cities airwaves. He was paid $1 and given two streetcar tokens per episode.
That was the start of a 75-year career in the broadcasting, entertainment and communications industries. Bentson was instrumental in putting WMIN-TV Channel 11 (now KARE-TV) on the air in September 1953 and joined with his father-in-law, Eddie Ruben, and Joe Floyd to found what is now Midcontinent Media, a company that provides cable television, digital telephone and broadband Internet service in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Bentson was also a major philanthropist in the Twin Cities, where he donated to many nonprofit organizations and created scholarships and fellowships at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota.
"One of the most important things to him was giving back to the community and supporting charities," said Tom Braman, the son of Bentson's second wife, Barbara. "Larry was so humble about his great success and had so much respect and concern for the people he worked with. He was always there to help friends when needed."
Bentson died of cancer Sunday at United Hospital in St. Paul. He was 87.
He was chairman of the board and the last remaining founding partner of Midcontinent, which in 1952 acquired a Sioux Falls radio station and built the first TV station in South Dakota. Under his leadership, the company acquired several radio and TV stations in Wisconsin and Minnesota, including KDWB and WLOL 99.5 FM (now KSJN-FM). The company entered the cable TV industry in the 1960s and subsequently expanded into broadband Internet and telephone service.
"Larry was a pioneer in the cable industry and was always trying to improve conditions for our customers," said Tom Simmons, Midcontinent's senior vice president of public policy. "He was a visionary. He had a remarkable career and was gracious about giving back to the industry, both with time and money."
Bentson was honored last year with the Ward L. Quaal Broadcast Pioneer Award from the Broadcasters Foundation of America. He was inducted as an inaugural member of the Museum of Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2001 and was a past president of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association.
Bentson and his late first wife, Nancy, followed a family tradition of giving when they established a $10 million scholarship fund in 2003 to help incoming freshmen at the University of Minnesota. At the time, it was the largest gift dedicated solely for scholarships ever given to the university.
Bentson was a prominent contributor to the university's Department of Pediatrics, and also made contributions to United Hospital, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul and the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting in St. Louis Park.
Bentson was born in Lidgerwood, N.D., and graduated from St. Paul Central High School. He earned a degree in engineering from the University of Minnesota. He spent three years as a lieutenant in the Navy during World War II.
Bentson is survived by his second wife, Barbara Braman Bentson of St. Paul; a daughter, Laurie Kauth of Santa Barbara, Calif.; a stepson, Tom, of St. Paul, and a granddaughter. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Nancy Ruben Bentson, and a daughter, Jan Bentson Martin.
Services will be held at 2 p.m. today at Mount Zion Temple, 1300 Summit Av., St. Paul.