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She filled a long life with love, adventures

Mary Bendlage raced ponies, performed daredevil stunts for royalty and outlived two husbands.

By JOY DAVIS-PLATT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 2003

SPRING HILL -- Mary Ardoth Bendlage was born during a storm and died during a storm.

The first was 94 years ago and pelted the windows of a farmhouse on the plains of Lisbon, N.D. The last brought a cooling rain to the green lawns of Hernando-Pasco Hospice on Feb. 22.

On Thursday, Alyssa Kierkegaard sat at a dining room table poring through yellowing newspaper articles about her grandmother with words like "adventurous," "daredevil" and "sweetheart" in bold-faced type.

Several faded photos show a 20-year-old Bendlage astride her beloved Shetland pony, Betty, halfway down a 40-foot drop into a pool of water. She was performing, the clippings read, for the coronation of Emperor Hirohito of Japan.

"You either go up or you go down," Kierkegaard said. "That's what she always told me and that's what I try to remember."

For two months in the winter of 1928, Bendlage and Betty made the jump twice each day to entertain the enthusiastic Japanese crowds. But her equestrian tendencies had shown themselves much earlier.

Another family photo shows a girl barely older than a toddler standing on the broad back hips of a full grown horse, a rein held in each tiny hand.

Nearby, her father, Alonzo Schneider stood close watch.

By 1917, the 9-year-old earned money for the family by performing at carnivals and fairs with her beloved ponies, Betty and Buster.

"Her first job was for $5," said Kierkegaard. "She had trained them to pose, count, shake hands, play dead, you name it."

Although times were hard and the Dakotas were in the bony grasp of a 7-year drought, the animals meant far more to the young Bendlage than a meal ticket.

"Buster was her best friend," said Kierkegaard, who often sat at her grandmother's side, listening to stories of her youth. "She would cry on his shoulder and tell him all of her problems. He would lie down and she would rest her head on him until she fell asleep."

After returning from Japan, Bendlage received her pilot's license, but it was much earlier that she first tried something even more dangerous. When she was about 12, her brother, Kenneth, more than a decade her senior, convinced the young girl to walk out onto the wing of a plane he was flying.

"She said it was the most terrifying thing she had done in her life," said Kierkegaard. "But she couldn't wimp out because it was her brother."

Soon enough, Bendlage felt comfortable soaring above the crowds that gathered to watch her.

In 1928, on a horse named Holly Boy, Bendlage won the first all-women's race on an associated track at the Coronado Town Plate Race in Tijuana. She went on to repeat her win three more times.

Among other mementos is a letter of introduction dated 1933 from the White House of Franklin Roosevelt for Miss Ardoth Schneider, California's "Finest Outdoor Girl." The letter accompanied the 5-foot-2 performer on a trip to Panama, Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador she won for becoming "Sweetheart of California."

Mary Ardoth Schneider added the name Gibson when she wed her first husband, Charles. She was widowed five years later.

Two years later, she married the love of her life, George Bendlage.

"I have never seen two people more in love," Kierkegaard said, eyes welling with tears. "It was amazing to see them together. It's what I look for in my relationships."

The pair moved to Brooksville in 1980 and George died in 1991 at the age of 94.

Kierkegaard, 23, recently completed a bachelor's degree in English and plans to write a book about her grandmother's remarkable life.

"I have learned so much from her about being positive in dealing with life and in trying to be strong," she said. "I think her life will be a wonderful story to tell."

Bendlage is also survived by daughter Paula Kierkegaard, of Duvall, Wash., and grandson Eric Kierkegaard of San Rafael, Calif.

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