A Legacy – And a Business

from Crain’s Chicago Business

By Becky Beaupre Gillespie

Kay Laube Benson’s business selling children’s musical programs launched four years ago, but it was a generation in the making. And it’s been a journey that is as much about the lessons and love passed from mother to daughter as it is a testament to entrepreneurial determination.

More than a half century ago, Ms. Benson’s mother was running a home-based preschool in Connecticut, writing her own material for the programs her students performed for their parents.

“If she couldn’t find the music, she just wrote her own,” says Ms. Benson, 58, of Winnetka.

Now, years after Betty Jean Laube first created the songs — many centering around her fictional character Mr. Rhythm — her daughter has helped shape them into a series of downloadable plays for teachers to use for musical performances. Mr. Rhythm’s Children’s Plays, designed for kids in preschool and kindergarten, debuted online in 2008 and the small business has grown.

But it began with the creative and determined Ms. Laube, who worked at a time when not many married mothers had careers.

“I remember her saying to me, “You know what, you need to be able to support yourself and take care of yourself, and if you (happen to) meet a guy that’s great,’ “ Ms. Benson says, laughing. “That’s her in a nutshell. She was a 5-foot-1, very petite, very quiet little woman married to this big boisterous guy. She just wanted (her kids) to be confident, and she wanted (us) to be able to take care of (ourselves) and be independent — that came through loud a clear. Everyone in my family went to college.”

The tiny Ms. Laube had big dreams, and she hoped to turn her songs into books. But she was losing her eyesight to retinal disease, so she enlisted her then-teenaged daughter’s help.

“She couldn’t read her own writing anymore, so I sort of became her personal assistant,” Ms. Benson says. “You know, when you’re a sophomore in high school, you’re like, ‘What?!’ But it created a wonderful relationship for us — it really was a business relationship. She taught me how to sit down and get work done, to create something.”

That business relationship took root, but it would be many years before it blossomed. Ms. Benson’s dad took a new job in North Carolina, so her mom closed the preschool and the two of them moved to Chapel Hill. The programs languished on a shelf in their garage for a couple of decades before Ms. Benson moved the boxes to Winnetka in the 1990s, where they continued to sit, virtually untouched.

In January 2006, Ms. Benson decided that those programs had waited long enough: It was time to start recording the music. That spring, she flew to North Carolina and her parents transferred ownership rights to her. A few months later, however, her dad died and, in September, her mom moved into an assisted living facility in Glenview.

It was an opportunity to resurrect the mother-daughter team: Ms. Laube had always been a purpose-driven woman, and she needed a project. Helping turn Mr. Rhythm into a business was just the thing.

“It was such a cool thing to be doing together,” Ms. Benson says.

And so during the last five years of her life, Ms. Laube joined her daughter as she expanded the ideas and songs into musical plays, oversaw the recording of the music, and built Mr. Rhythm into an Internet-based business. Ms. Laube had developed dementia, but in the recording studio, she was the one who caught all the mistakes.

“She just would beam,” Ms. Benson says. “She would remember everything. It was like having her back. It was truly magnificent.”

In Ms. Laube’s final months, her daughter would play the songs for her — the legacy of shared passion and business. On June 2, 2011, Ms. Laube died at age 92. Ms. Benson found it hard, at first, to move on with the business without her mom — but she eventually soldiered forward. Last year, she sold 500 programs, and this year she’s on track to double that. Seven plays, including the recorded songs, are available on the website — selling for $39.95 as a download or $59.95 plus shipping as a printed binder with a CD — and Ms. Benson says she still has more of her mother’s music.

“I think she’d be really happy,” Ms. Benson says . “It was something she couldn’t finish herself. For me to be able to finish something that was a lifelong dream of hers gives me great honor, it’s a great privilege.”

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