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Sen. Bentsen’s Father Killed in Car Crash : Flamboyant Rio Grande Valley Pioneer Carved Out Land Empire

Times Staff Writer

Lloyd Bentsen Sr., the flamboyant 95-year-old father of the 1988 Democratic vice presidential candidate, was killed in a car wreck early Tuesday morning as he was driving on a country road near the Mexican border.

Bentsen, one of the pioneers of the Rio Grande Valley, was making the morning rounds of his 42,000 acres of land when the accident occurred. Mike Cox, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said the elder Bentsen apparently failed to yield the right of way at a highway intersection and was hit on the passenger side by another car. The two people in the other car, Ramiro Rosalez and his sister, Margarita, were injured and taken to a nearby hospital.

Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen Jr. immediately left his Washington office to fly to Texas.

The elder Bentsen arrived in the Rio Grande Valley more than 70 years ago and began carving out an empire through sweat and a keen head for business that substituted for a formal education. Over the years, he became a millionaire many times over and said in an interview during the presidential campaign that be had bought and sold more than 250,000 acres in the valley over the years.

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During the campaign, he took reporters on a tour of his land and the Buick he was driving had a radar detector on the dashboard. There was a sign on the gate of the family home, given to him by his then-candidate son, which said, “Never Mind the Dog. Beware of Owner.”

Sen. Bentsen sent the sign after his father got the drop on three armed thieves stealing a carload of fruit from one of his citrus groves last year.

“His idea of gun control is a steady hand,” the senator said of his father.

Bentsen Sr. was a great spinner of stories. He told with relish about lassoing a 64-pound rattlesnake and then throwing it into the back of a pickup truck. Or about wolf hunting and mustang breaking as a boy in South Dakota, of being a migrant worker, of plowing into a horse-drawn buggy while going 100 m.p.h. on a motorcycle.

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But his favorite story was the one about meeting his wife, Dolly, when he was visiting Mission, Tex., in the valley while stationed in San Antonio during World War I.

“I seen the prettiest girl God ever created walking towards me,” he said. “When the war was over, Mission was the first place I hit.”

Bentsen began building his empire when he talked a bank into lending him $500 and bought his first acreage for the then-unheard of sum of $7 an acre. But the value increased 100-fold over the years.

In the early 1950s, there was a flurry of suits against Bentsen and his brother, Elmer, by people who bought land in the valley and claimed that they were cheated because the orchards were not irrigated. Some of those cases were won by the Bentsens while others were settled out of court.

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“I never defrauded a man in my life,” Bentsen said. “I never lied in my life.”


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