Vice Presidential Candidate Grandson of Stowaway Immigrant
BIRKELSE, Denmark (AP) _ Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s grandfather didn’t have enough money for a ticket when he emigrated to America 100 years ago, so he stowed away on a cargo ship, his Danish relatives say.
Today, Bentsen is a wealthy U.S. senator from Texas and the Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States.
Bentsen still has relatives, Dagmar and Theodor Jensen, in the village of Birkelse, where the Bentsen family originated, 32 miles west of Aalborg in northern Jutland. Both are 87.
Bentsen’s grandfather, Niels Peter Bentsen, left Denmark in 1888 to start a new life in the United States. He was one of more than 300,000 Danes who emigrated during the 75 years before 1914.
Surrounded by a throng of grandchildren, Mrs. Jensen, niece of the elder Bentsen, tells the story of her mother’s younger brother.
″When he was 19 years old, he was the coachman at the big estate of Birkelse nearby. One day he got into an argument with his boss over some infraction he had done. He then felt he had had enough, and decided to emigrate,″ she said.
″My mother lent him 75 kroner (about $10.50 at today’s rate), and he got another 25 kroner ($3.50) from his mother,″ Mrs. Jensen said.
The 100 kroner Niels Peter borrowed from his family was a lot of money at the time, about a year’s salary for an industrial worker. But he was still short of the transatlantic fare.
″Apparantly he stowed away on the ship,″ Mrs. Jensen said, reciting the old family story that has appeared in a book about the Bentsens by Joan Sloan Johnson.
After three days, the stowaway emerged from hiding, judging that he no longer risked being sent back, and offered to work his way over the Atlantic.
In Birkelse, nobody knew that Niels Peter Bentsen’s grandson was a U.S. senator until Danish newspapers started to trace Lloyd Bentsen’s Danish roots.
The Jensens follow the U.S. election campaign on television. ″We are happy that he is doing well,″ Jensen said.
The 1,500 inhabitants of this quiet village with well-tended gardens and flourishing farmland make little fuss about their link to the Democratic candidate.
″It was so long ago he emigrated. I never even met Uncle Peter,″ Mrs. Jensen said.
But they did get the money back that they loaned him.
″On Christmas Eve when I was about 5 years old our whole farm, with houses and stables, burned down to the ground. We had no insurance and no money, and we lost everything,″ Mrs. Jensen said.
″But Niels Peter sent us enough money to rebuild the farm. So we got the money back, and with plenty of interest, too,″ she said. The Jensens lived on the farm until about 25 years ago.
Later, during World War II, the American relatives also helped by sending money, food and clothing to the family in Nazi-occupied Denmark.
Niels Peter Bentsen first worked as a farmhand with a German family on the East Coast. Later, he found work near Seattle, where he met and married a Danish woman, Tena, also from northern Jutland. They moved to South Dakota and ended up in Texas.
In 1898, 10 years after arriving in the United States, Niels Peter had saved enough to return to Birkelse to visit. But the trip was a disappointment.
On the way from the train station to his aunt’s house, he was arrested for walking on the grass. The incident reminded him of his frustration over the authoritarian Danish society he had left, and he cut short his visit.
In Texas, Niels Peter Bentsen started a business with two of his sons buying citrus-growing land that one son, Lloyd Bentsen Sr., built into a financial dynasty.
Financial records released Monday by the Washington office of Lloyd Bentsen Jr. indicate he has earned more than $3.8 million over the past five years, but they don’t disclose his net worth.
″My father is a symbol of what people of courage and vision and daring can achieve in America. He has lived the American dream,″ the Texas senator said in his acceptance speech July 22. His father, now 94, was in the audience.
″Talk about risk-takers. His family came to this country across the ocean, across the prairie, and homesteaded on the plains of South Dakota when the government would bet you 160 acres that you couldn’t make it through the winter,″ the younger Bentsen said.
″They built a sod house, and when that first blizzard blew in, they took turns staying awake for 36 hours, burning bundles of straw so they wouldn’t freeze to death,″ he said.
″They made their way in America.″