Ethel (Babbie) Benson Nalle Wetherill died Tuesday, April 14, at the Mather House at the Hill at Whitemarsh, Lafayette Hill, of complications from advanced COPD. She was 95.
Born at home on Bethlehem Pike in Chestnut Hill, on January 6, 1925, she was the daughter of Edwin N. Benson Jr. and Ethel Weightman Benson. Her paternal grandfather, Major Edwin North Benson, presided over the Electoral College that elected James Garfield as president in 1880. Although she was not his financial heir, her maternal great-grandfather was William Weightman, once Philadelphia’s wealthiest industrialist, a founder of the malaria-curing quinine producer, Powers & Weightman, which through later mergers became Merck & Company.
Benson was educated at Miss Zara’s School and Springside School. She enrolled at Vermont’s Bennington College where she discovered her dance teacher was Martha Graham and her faculty advisor was poet Theodore Roethke. “I couldn’t dance well enough for Martha. I didn’t understand Mr. Roethke, and he couldn’t understand me,” she later said.
Prior to marriage, Benson found herself romanced by patricians, politicians and a film producer. On a 1940s ski trip with a friend, she drew the attention of Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci, who photographed her modeling his ski apparel and prototype bikinis.
Politically, she mostly voted Democratic, yet immersed herself in a grass roots campaign for Republican Wendell Willkie’s 1940 presidential run.
A sportswoman, she rode horses as a child in the Wissahickon Valley and in Flourtown.
She was avid, lifelong baseball fan and at a young age opportunistically purchased shares in the Philadelphia Phillies, which later swapped her equity for cash, and a prized lifetime stadium pass.
But Benson’s greatest sports accomplishments were in golf. As a player, she won the Sunnybrook Golf Championship 13 times. On the Springside Chestnut Hill Academy website, a Sunnybrook representative calls her “one of the finest players in the Philadelphia region. In fact, she has been the club champion here over six decades, and we are mighty proud of her…”
In a grueling 36-hole links battle against Annette Coar Gessler (Kane) in 1953, broadcast over local radio, Benson won the 54th Annual Women’s Philadelphia Golf Championship at age 26. After her win, Wilson Sporting Goods offered to sponsor her as a professional. She also covered a number of tournaments as a reporter for Gold World.
She temporarily sidelined competitive golf, however, when her beau, Philadelphia advertising executive Horace Nalle (1922-1999), returned home from the Korean War. The two became engaged in a boat adrift off Northeast Harbor, Maine, and were married at St. Paul’s Church in October of 1953. Over the next two decades, she and Horace raised five children on the three-acre land on which she was born.
An advocate of inner-city learning, Benson served on the board of North Philadelphia’s Wharton Center, which once provided neighborhood social welfare, recreational and community services. She also helped underprivileged children learn to read.
When her own children started leaving for college in the early 1970s, Benson earned a real estate degree and began selling homes for Eichler & Moffly Realtors, now Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach. She was also active in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania and the American Cancer Society.
She was a devoted parishioner at nearby St. Paul’s Church, where she was baptized in 1925 and married in 1953. She published that church’s Women’s Auxiliary “how-to” book, “Knit One.” Active as a parent at both Springside and Chestnut Hill Academy, she was also a member of the Northeast Harbor Golf Club, Northeast Harbor Tennis Club and St. Mary’s-By-The-Sea in Maine. She regularly attended performances of The Philadelphia Orchestra.
In 1999, she married former Philadelphia Stock Exchange President and WHYY Chairman Elkins Wetherill (1919-2011). Together they enjoyed global travel and equestrian activities when she moved to his farm in Plymouth Meeting. Soon after Mr. Wetherill’s death, she moved to The Hill at Whitemarsh.
She was predeceased by brothers Perry, Richard and Peter Benson; two husbands, Horace Disston Nalle, Elkins Wetherill; and a baby daughter.
Mrs. Wetherill is survived by her five children by Horace Nalle: television producer Ned Nalle (Karen), animal health care investor, and advisor Horace D. Nalle (Patricia), Kurfiss Sotheby’s Sales Associate Ellen Nalle Hass (Jay), Financial Advisor Alexander B. Nalle (Alison), and writer Lucinda Nalle. She is also outlived by three stepchildren: Elkins Jr. (Eve), Alexandra W. Gerry, and Stephen H. Wetherill (Susan). She was devoted to her 14 grandchildren, Sarah, Henry, and Alexander Nalle Jr. of San Francisco; Garrick Hyde-White, Isabella and Griffin Nalle, and Charlotte Hass of Los Angeles; John Hass, Peter and Nina Nalle of New York City; James and Benson Nalle, Robert Hass, and Anna Weed of Chestnut Hill. She leaves behind seven step-grandchildren and eight step-great grand-children; in addition to nieces Marion Benson Miller of Chestnut Hill, Ethel Benson Wister of Berwyn, and nephew Perry Benson Jr. of Philadelphia.
The family indicates it will hold a celebration of life ceremony when conditions permit.
In lieu of flowers, they suggest a contribution to Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, the Neighborhood Scholars’ Fund, 500 W. Willow Grove Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19118.