A longtime Long Island real estate developer and a Bronze Star recipient, Alvin Benjamin was also the kind of 91-year-old who young relatives scrambled to sit near at family gatherings.
"He was always the most entertaining guy in the room," said Denise Coyle, his wife's sister. Nephews and grandchildren fought to sit by him to hear stories and get lighthearted advice on their love lives, she said.
He was "just about the last of a generation of builders and developers who helped build Long Island," said Charlie Mancini, president of The Park Ridge Organization, based in Hauppauge, and past president of the Long Island Builders Institute. "Those guys came out of World War II" and "provided housing for many tens of thousands of people on Long Island," he said.
Coyle, chief executive of The Benjamin Cos., also said that one of her brother-in-law's guiding beliefs was that it was possible to both do good in the world and make money.
Together with the Beechwood Organization, Benajmin's company is developing Arverne by the Sea, a 127-acre beachfront community in the Rockaways. While Benjamin's firm has developed commercial and luxury properties, such as the Courthouse Corporate Center in Central Islip and the Knolls of Glen Head, a main focus has been on affordable multifamily and senior housing.
Benjamin was also known to let a good deed trump his own financial interests. Although a bank loan was delayed -- meaning he wouldn't be paid right away -- he went ahead and started work on the Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York in Jamaica, completed in 1997, said state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-Jamaica), at that time a church trustee.
"By faith and good nature he felt the project needed to go forward" and that he would get paid eventually, Smith said. When Smith later ran for political office, he said he received donations from Benjamin, but "not one time did he ever ask" for a favor in return.
Land development wasn't Benjamin's only line of work. He also operated nursing homes. In 2002, four of the nursing homes -- three of them on Long Island -- agreed to repay the state $930,000 for overbilling Medicaid over a seven-year period in what Coyle said was related to a routine audit issue.
Born in Brooklyn on Nov. 3, 1920, Benjamin was a graduate of Erasmus Hall High School and Brooklyn College. He enlisted in the Navy during World War II, and was awarded a Bronze Star for his service as a captain aboard a landing vessel during the battle of Iwo Jima.
After military service, he attended Brooklyn Law School but dropped out as he was already making money as a mortgage broker, Coyle said.
Benjamin told Newsday in 2002 that a big lesson he learned over the years was that "you have to be in the right place at the right time."
Still, Russell Mohr, a 20-year employee and now a vice president with The Benjamin Cos., said the lessons he learned from Benjamin had to do with hard work, loyalty and perseverance in activities ranging from bank negotiations to site visits where Benjamin would "talk and shake hands with everyone on the job."
Asked in 2002 if he was considering retirement, Benjamin quipped, "I retired about 35 years ago, and discovered that I love my job too much to quit."
Survivors include his wife, Deborah Benjamin of Plandome Manor; and daughters Susan Benjamin of Washington, D.C., and Lisa Katter of St. James. He was predeceased by a daughter, Karen Unger of Huntington. All three children were from a previous marriage to the late Rose Benjamin of Boca Raton, Fla. He is also survived by a brother, Harvey, in Birmingham, Ala.; a sister, Enid Eisman, in Atlanta; and five grandchildren.
Donations can be made to the Fanconi Anemia Research Fund, 1801 Willamette St., Suite 200, Eugene, OR 97401.