When the National Merit Scholarship organization announced its 2020 honorees this fall, a familiar name stood out on the list: Bengtson.

Franny Bengtson, a  senior at La Salle Prep, had scored high enough on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test to be named a semifinalist.

Just four years ago, Franny’s brother, Louis Bengtson, was named a National Merit commended student. The prior year, Franny’s sister, Lilly Bengtson, also had been a commended student. And in 2011, Franny’s other brother, Lucas Bengtson, was named a National Merit finalist.

All four Bengtson siblings — who attended La Salle Prep in Milwaukie — were recognized by the National Merit program. Each year, the honors go to 50,000 high school seniors who score the highest out of the 1.6 million students who took the test as juniors.

“It’s a little crazy that we all managed to qualify for this,” said Franny. “That being said, I can’t really say I’m super surprised they all qualified because I think we all have those really good critical thinking skills that are needed to do well on tests like these.”

Those thinking skills were honed, the siblings said, with the help of La Salle and their parents, George Bengtson and Theresa Langdon, both National Merit standouts themselves.

George was a National Merit winner in Florence, Alabama, in 1979; Theresa was commended in Glenview, Illinois, in 1978.

“From time to time, [National Merit Scholarship Corporation] does hear about high-achieving families, where multiple siblings and/or generations have been recognized in the program,” said Katy Wheat, public information coordinator for the corporation. “It’s always so impressive.”

A tradition of hard work

The road to academic success started early in the Bengtson household. Lucas, the oldest child, started reading before he was 3. Their mother read to them all daily. She started with picture books. Later, she shared classics such as “Anne of Green Gables.”

“More recent kids’ books (including ‘Harry Potter’) are dumbed down,” said Theresa, a physician. “You'll never understand something complicated unless you've been exposed to it.”

The family spent a lot of time together, too. They hiked, played board games and traveled around Oregon. Every so often, they bought Popeye’s chicken and picnicked on the roof of their Eastmoreland home.

Dinner time was sacred. No TV or electronics were allowed; if the phone rang, it went unanswered.

“It never seemed like too much to expect to have 20-30 minutes of uninterrupted family time every day,” said Theresa. “We’d talk about our day or, as the kids got older, talk about world events or argue about politics. We tried to challenge them to think for themselves. I always told them I didn’t care what their opinion was on any given issue as long as they had a well thought out reason for believing what they did.”

Though George and Theresa are highly educated themselves (George also is a physician), they said they never pushed their children — only encouraged them to do their best.

“Their best turned out to be really good,” said Theresa.

Setting their own paths

As the Bengtson children grew older, they set their own expectations. Once they got to high school, they took many of La Salle’s most challenging courses.

“We weren’t ever in the same classes so we were mostly independent academically,” said oldest sibling Lucas, a software engineer whose accomplishments include a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Oregon State University, a master’s degree in intelligent information systems from Carnegie Mellon University, distinction as La Salle valedictorian and a perfect score on the ACT.

“Had we been around the same age, I bet I’d have beaten them at math, Lilly would be the best essay writer, Louis knows his history and world culture the best, and Frances probably has the best grasp on organic sciences.”

Louis credits their parents for cultivating each child’s individuality. For instance, they indulged his appetite for history by buying him books that interested him. “This, I think, was one of their great strengths as parents,” said Louis, who graduated with a degree in physics from Willamette University and now works at a Portland startup. “They were willing to throw their full support behind essentially any discipline, hobby or pursuit in which I or my siblings expressed interest.”

Choosing their own paths meant the siblings were less likely to compete against one another, said Franny. “It’s definitely really helpful that we all want to go into different careers,” said Franny, who wants to go into obstetrics.

The four consider themselves a team, said Lilly, who also was a valedictorian at La Salle. After graduating from the University of Puget Sound with a degree in psychology and spending a year in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, she started working toward a doctorate in clinical psychology at Idaho State University this year.

“I love Lucas, Louis and Fran so much and would hate for us to ever be anything other than a team,” she said. “We siblings support each other through sharing our mutual experiences of both joy and frustration with school and with life.”

In addition to immersing themselves in their studies, each of the Bengtsons found a niche at La Salle, be it in theater, cross-country, soccer, speech or another passion. The older three also found academics so rigorous at La Salle that they easily adapted to the workload in college.

Lilly said that right after turning in her first college essay, she emailed a thank-you note to English teacher Chris Krantz.

“I was blessed with a nonstop string of fantastic teachers throughout high school,” she said.

George said he’s proud his children have made the most of their gifts of amazing teachers, exceptional friends and the opportunity to attend a Catholic grade school [Holy Family] as well as high school.

“They have entered to learn, and are leaving to serve,” he said, paraphrasing La Salle’s motto. “Where did I hear that before?”

Daniels is director of communications at La Salle Prep.