Bentons live in a cozy, open, rustic contemporary home, designed and
built by Duane in 1971—complete with free-standing black steel fireplace,
lots of clerestory windows, exposed wood beams and a king-sized waterbed.
An architect by profession, Duane closed down his firm in 1961 to help
Nancy, who had decided that she wanted to leave her boring clerk’s job
at Greyhound Bus Lines and start a candle company. Nancy set about
creating the initial cast product line while Duane immersed himself
in the discovery of the architectural properties of waxes and the linear
design possibilities of tall, thin, hand-dipped taper candles. The
result was Creative Candles, which grew from a dollar-a-day backroom
rental operation into an internationally-recognized symbol of quality.
Nancy and Duane worked side-by-side for nearly four decades, fostering
a family atmosphere among their employees and their customer base and
growing three additional businesses while raising their two children.
Creative Candles was sold in 1997, after Duane plummeted into a dangerous
depression which required a year of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT).
This drastic treatment cost him much of his memory, which had to be
rebuilt, with Nancy’s steadfast help. His mind and spirit restored,
today the Bentons are a vibrant, generous couple who show their deep
concern for humanity through their many involvements in their community
are eclectic music lovers; Nancy’s wide-ranging taste is evidenced by
the fact that she has been lucky enough, in her lifetime, to see both
Jimi Hendrix and Hank Williams in concert. When I told them I was planning
to spend my last night in Kansas City checking out a reportedly sensational
young blueswoman at a local tavern, they chose to accompany me; I will
never forget the sight of Duane—standing
at the foot of the stage, fingers in his ears for protection, head bobbing—with
a big grin on his face as he watched her wailing away on the electric
Why are you married?
I met someone I couldn’t live without.
I think that’s the answer. In both cases. Yeah.
My whole world changed when I re-met Nancy. She was eighteen, and I
was twenty-one. I decided I would go over to her house, which was in
town here, and take her little brother out for an ice-cream cone. And
I still to this day don’t know how it was that there was nobody home
I don’t either, really. It wasn’t a plot.
I think it was a conspiracy between the guy who originally introduced
us, when Nancy was 15, and Nancy’s stepmother.
He’s sure it was.
When I arrived, Nancy had just baked some brownies. And you know what
freshly-baked brownies smell like. And she had some Stan Kenton going,
on one of these little 45-rpm record players. The kind that drops the
records. So out came the brownies, and a glass of milk, and—
We sat on the floor and listened to jazz.
Nancy knew more about music—and still does—than almost anybody I’d ever
We had a nice time. And then we started dating.
How would you each describe yourself at the time that you first got
Pretty young and naïve.
When I look at pictures of ourselves at that time, I think, “who were
You know? They were just kids.
Had you had boyfriends before?
Oh, yeah. In high school.
I had not really dated in high school.
Uh-huh. There was a girl who lived near us, out in the country. I
fell in love with her. (He laughs.) And I really wanted to
marry her. I was a very serious kid, and I was very idealistic. Her
parents had bigger ideas for her. And her older sister had even bigger
ideas for her. I was a sophomore in the school of architecture at the
University of Kansas, and she was eighty miles away at Kansas State
College. They put so much pressure on her that she got sick.
She withered down to practically nothing. She called me one night and
she said, “Duane, we can’t do this any more. It’s over.” You know?
So that was a really tough one. It took away the personal reason I
had set out to become an architect. So I made myself have what
in those days we called a coke date, or a coffee date, on campus every
day. I made myself have a date every day. And my other
rule was that I wouldn’t see the same girl twice in the same week.
What was your rationale for that?
It was to distract myself on the one hand, and I was scared to death
of getting hurt again.
To protect yourself. Mm-hmm.
I was forcing myself out, but I had my guard up. I met some really
nice girls, girls who liked me, and who couldn’t figure out what was
wrong with me.
Nancy, how did you break through that?
Well, it was funny. We really, I guess, fell in love right away…
I went away to school in Ohio, and we wrote. You know, people really
didn’t call long-distance very much in those days. Then one time, I
got this letter—after I’d only been gone a few weeks, I think—and it
was, “Dear Buddy.” (She laughs.) You know? And it was
being so casual and noncommittal and so on, that I just got mad. I
wrote back and I kind of called him on it. (She laughs again.)
By New Year’s Eve that year, we had really decided, and admitted, we
were in love and really cared about each other. Weren’t pretending
to be quite so casual anymore. But that was his protective armor from
being badly hurt before. He told me about her. I was kinda jealous,
you know. But that was in the past.
When you decided to get married, what were your expectations of what
life was going to be?
Well, I’d work for architects, and we’d do whatever we needed to do
to get the military out of the way, which was two years. And then,
I expected to be making enough money, I guess, that Nancy wouldn’t have
to work. My goal was to become licensed and then begin my private
practice of architecture.
Mine was all along a support role. I didn’t plan to go back to college,
although I’ve continued taking courses all my life. Non-credit… adult
education things. I’m still doing it. So a degree wasn’t important
to me, because I didn’t have any plans for it. But I think, without
questioning it, that it was basically supportive to your career…
kind of role.
Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And that, I think, continued to play through most
of our marriage.
I wasn’t aware of it till later.
We didn’t think about it in those terms, I think.
It was just natural. And the times.
But looking back, it’s pretty apparent.
How did the marriage dynamic change when, after 44 years, Duane was
hospitalized for such a severe depression?
I found out I was stronger and more capable than I had ever known.
I was going to the hospital every day and I was running the shop and
everything. It’s just that you come forth in an emergency or a crisis
and have reserves that you never knew you had, that you call on. The
people that worked for us, and with us, were so wonderful. One of them…
every morning, we’d form a circle and have a moment to think about Duane,
and helping him. Things like that, that were so supportive.
It sounds like there was a balance shift.
Mm-hmm. That was a big awakening for me. I was already relying on
Nancy, and all of the people who worked for us, to be covering a lot
of my bases. I had already delegated a lot more than any of them knew.
So they were in position to take on more when they suddenly had to.
Yeah. And I knew that they had more capability, capacity, etc., than
they knew they had. Nancy and our employees. Nancy and I were
really partners in Creative Candles. And in everything else. I suppose
if one word had to describe our marriage, it would be partners.
Our businesses were such that, in a lot of ways, I thought of them as
being our family farm. Because our kids came and went with them, our
kids grew up with these businesses. Our employees were like extended
family, and they helped us raise our kids.
Especially Creative Candles.
Nancy ran all of the cast production. And I ran all of the hand-dipped
production. And together, we ran everything from the business to sales,
and how we would do things, etc.
And new product development.
Yeah. We worked together, like if Nancy was going to do a banded pillar
or something, I would work with her on everything from concept to color
to packaging to methodology; and I if was going to do something with
tapers, the same deal. Nancy would work with me on that. Fortunately—I
didn’t realize this, until just the past 3, 4, or 5 years—Nancy and
I have a very similar aesthetic. We see color the same way. We respond
to fragrance the same way. We respond to form and proportion very much
the same way. I had more of a technical background in some of those
things, but Nancy had the natural ability. So we grew together.
But Nancy typically—raising the kids, keeping the house working—
I had to be home earlier.
Yeah. And me working at night, on the drawing board, making candles
for a big order that had to go tomorrow, or something—she kept the base,
so that I could be the explorer, the pioneer, etc. Okay, so now, with
all that said: Nancy was typically operating in my shadow. And
she would even push me out front. You know? It wasn’t like running
along behind me, banging the back of my head, saying, “wait a minute.”
We were just like that. So what Nancy said a minute ago was really
key to it. She was a lot more capable than she knew. She had never
been tested. Nancy had to rise up and become the decision-maker for
things I’d always made decisions on. And I wasn’t even concerned about
it. I didn’t know what was happening; I was blotto.
Because ECT affects your memory. Your short-term memory especially.
He really didn’t know how to get from point A to point B anymore.
For a while.
totally lost my memory. To the point where I found myself standing
one day, in June of 1998, trying to figure out what my name was. It
wasn’t Robert, it wasn’t John, it wasn’t Fred. And then, “why don’t
I know what my name is?” And I started looking around in my head, and
I didn’t know anything else. I didn’t know anything.
Where I’d been, where I was going, or anything else. Didn’t know there
was a Creative Candles. Didn’t know there were these other three businesses.
January I’d gone into the hospital. Now it was June. Nancy, in the
meantime, is taking care of the day-to-day operations of the businesses,
carrying me around in a basket. I was having to relearn things. I
wasn’t remembering things; anything I wanted to know how to do, I’d
have to learn how to do again. My hands were so shaky, I’d have to
hold one hand with the other to draw. I couldn’t carry a concept for
a while; if I moved my head to another track, to locate a piece of information
and try to bring it back, I didn’t know where to bring it back to.
So it was later that I started thinking about our relationship in all
this. For Nancy, dealing with this disaster of a person who used to
be a capable person, and a real partner. So I started recognizing not
just Nancy’s capability, but the wonderful expressions of it.
one day, I started asking myself—as I was gaining more of my capabilities
back—I started asking myself, “now what?” You know? Is Nancy going
to voluntarily go back into the shadows, where she—‘cause I started
realizing that that’s how she had operated—where she had historically
been? Was I going to push her back into the shadows? Was I
going to require that she go out of sight? And none of that worked.
None of that was appealing. So then, I had to ask myself, “can I grow?”
Into this give-and-take, she’s-in-my-face-frequently, feet-planted,
relationship? Can I learn to operate this way? Can I encourage Nancy
this way, to not just stay out, but continue to grow? (He laughs,
filled with emotion.) So, yes. We had always been partners. But
now, we were embarking on a new partnership path. Which is a
Well, yes. Because as you gradually moved on into driving for yourself,
and doing other things again for yourself, then I didn’t have to do
those anymore, but it was a regrouping kind of experience for both of
us, just to go through all that. And I think marriages can go through
a lot of stages; it’s almost like several different marriages, in a
…that you’ve had all along. And you can kind of earmark things like
that, that brought about real change.
We became aware that, through the years, we had been a lot of different
I had been a dozen different guys through those years. And Nancy had
been a bunch of different people. And I started to realize that that
happens to everybody. But in a lot of marriages, there is not enough
glue or resilience to help them through the difficult parts of these
changes, so that they can transition and then come back to a new ground
floor, which may be seven stories up from the old one, you know? In
which, then, they can link up and, in a lot of ways, start a different
Nancy and I started to talk about this shadow thing, this subordinate
role. We started talking honestly about, “how do you feel about this?”
and “How do you feel about that?” And… (he laughs.) are you
comfortable enough, are we strong enough, can we become strong
enough? And I started feeling bad about the fact that, when Nance and
I did get married, she interrupted her education. Because I
was starting to see aspects of Nancy I had never known about. Capabilities
in her that were way beyond the ones she used so well in our business
was starting to realize where Nancy might have gone on her own, had
she been able to get her college education, and wherever that was gonna
take her; because Nancy has a lot of capabilities that she never had
a chance to use, in the day-to-day operation of this business. With
raising the kids, and all this stuff, she was very engaged.
But now, she started to come out… so we now are operating on newer understandings.
Where I understand and appreciate more—and wanna support—Nancy’s growth,
and her relationships outside the home and outside of our business stuff.
I tag along to some of the luncheon lectures she attends, because they’re
subjects that interest me as well. But I’m the peripheral person there,
Where did you draw that strength, or faith, from? As opposed to saying,
“this isn’t going to work,” or “I can’t do this,” or “I’m leaving,”
or all the other choices that a lot of people make; what’s behind the
I don’t know, it wasn’t even an overt choice. It was just the only
thing to do. It was the only thing to consider. We have had friends
who… one who became paraplegic after an accident, and his wife left
him. She just said she couldn’t handle the prospect of taking care
of a paraplegic for the rest of her life. I know that that happens,
but I just never entertained the idea of anything but coming forward
and doing the best I could with the situation. I think it probably
has to do with what values you’re raised with. It’s not a particular
religious thing, or anything like that. I don’t belong to any organized
religion. But somehow, you do what you need to do to take care of that
situation, you know? You just do. And it comes from somewhere.
It isn’t until you’re tested that you even have occasion to think
about some of the things we’re discussing here. And then you have to
go beyond that initial kind of shock, confusion, etc., and get to what’s
really important. You may not have had occasion to find that before.
But when you do, you’re richer.
How do you define a marriage?
Well, the first thing that popped into my head is that it’s a mutually
dependent relationship. One in which each of the partners is more effective
than they would have been by themselves.
And fuller. Having a fuller life than would be the case by themselves.
Yeah. That’s just all functional stuff…
…but there’s just the joy of discovery and sharing… and of the things
that you build together.
Because marriage is an opportunity to build together.
What do you see as the biggest changes to the institution of marriage
in America, from the time you got married to today?
I think it must be harder and harder for young people, because of the
society and all the input of negativity and values that are not the
ones one would hope for. In movies, advertising, all the media and
so on. There’s an old saying, “nothing’s sacred.” I think that’s a
lot of what the Muslim world is finding wrong with the western world,
and it’s true. There’s just so much that’s counterproductive
for establishing really good relationships, I think.
There’s a lot of stuff that—talking about our idealism—was holy to me
and still is, that’s not a part of today’s culture. For instance, young
people who are dating have always typically had sex. There have always
been a given percentage who did before marriage. Okay? But when we
were growing up, it wasn’t…
I think the percentage was lower.
Much lower. I think more people had the idea of saving themselves for
the somebody who was going to be really special in their lives. And
if you’ve knocked around with a whole bunch of people… on the one hand,
you’ve learned a whole lot more about yourself, you’ve had a lot of
the myths debunked—and there’s benefit in all of that, so it’s hard
to say where the trade-off is, I suppose. But it appears to me that
there’s less today that’s holy to people. And I don’t say that
in a judgmental way. I’m kind of amazed at it, and I’m fascinated by
whatever insights I get in all that.
On the other hand, I see some other trends that are quite different
from that. And that has to do with the fact that women are more independent,
and marriage is taking place later in life. I was married at 19, you
know. I think the average age now is about 26? For the woman, and
maybe a little older for the man. And I think that’s a good
thing, because there’s more of a feeling of who you really are—selfhood—before
entering into a long-term relationship.
don’t know if all those marriages last or not; the divorce rate’s still
pretty high, but they’re having children later, and a lot of women—we’ve
seen it in this neighborhood—who’ve had good careers have made the decision
to stay home with their children up to a certain age, at least, before
they resume their careers. And they’re great parents; and very involved
in the community, etc. So I think that’s a very positive sign.
One of my beliefs is that men are maybe the romantics and women the
pragmatists. I also think that women mature emotionally and become
responsible earlier than men. And I think that women are not only more
comfortable with that, that seems to be the path. Whereas I believe
that men have a tendency to resist “growing up.”
How does that affect the marriage context?
I think that we have the residual stuff built into our genes, and into
societies as they’ve developed around the planet, that probably in some
ways strengthen, and probably in some ways weaken what we think of as
the institution of marriage between one man and one woman.
We have to learn to reconcile those in order to have the kind of marriage
we wanna have, and the kind of life we wanna have. Like, I, for one,
can’t imagine living with my fifth wife, and kids scattered around from
different marriages with different women… that would seem to me to be
so… distracting at best, and dysfunctional… for me. But we all
read about people whose lives are that kind of reality. And they find
ways to sort of make it work, I guess. Nevertheless, that to me looks