Bennie Bennett: A Good Friend Gone Too Soon

This past weekend, the state in general and Newberry County in particular lost a vibrant and truly virtuous citizen—Mr. Bennie Bennett, superintendent of Newberry County Schools. He was tragically killed in an automobile accident early Saturday evening. Rather than focus on the tragic loss of such a fine human, I attempt to honor his life, his passion, and his legacy. Mr. Bennett was a very close professional friend of mine. “Bennie,” as he liked to be called, was a vital and indispensable mentor to me when I became superintendent in Laurens County 56 in October 2009. He was one of the very first superintendents to call and offer his services and support. Bennie had the charm, the charisma, the character, and the competence needed to be the focus for productive academic growth and educational change in Newberry School District. He had the skills needed to assemble a top-quality team in Newberry and they worked for the good of the district by focusing on the needs of the students. Many times, he and I would talk about education and how things were changing and how we needed courageous leaders in all schools and throughout our districts. He recognized the need to work together, not only within a district but also among districts. He never competed against other districts but always attempted to help everyone succeed. Bennie was a coach even when he was superintendent. He knew to assemble the best team possible and focus on the goals at hand. He expected no one to work harder than he did himself. He demonstrated humility and deferred praise and compliments to those around him. Bennie was my weather buddy. Whenever bad weather threatened, he and I would talk (probably more than he sometimes wanted). He always told me, “If you do right by the students, you can never be wrong.” He would often take the lead when we were wondering whether to close or delay. He always said you could make up a missed day; you can’t make up for an injury. Bennie was a strong, though reserved, leader in the Western Piedmont Education Consortium (WPEC) and South Carolina Association of School Administrators (SCASA). Many times Mr. Bennett was the voice of reason and often admonished us with one of his favorite phrases, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are better than this…” He held himself to a high moral and ethical standard and assisted us to do the same. He looked at problems and not personalities. Although Bennie did not have his doctorate in education, he had something far more important. He understood the most important letters in front of a person’s name were “Mr. or Ms.” He treated everyone with respect and appreciation. He didn’t need a doctorate. I learned more from his “Mr.” degree than many others with different letters in front of their name. When I received the call regarding his tragic death, I couldn’t speak. Dr. Sharon Wall, interim superintendent in Greenwood 52 (Ninety Six), called and told me and I sat stunned and mute. I couldn’t comprehend it. Truth be told, I still haven’t; however, I received consolation Sunday morning when my pastor, Dr. Kitty Holtzclaw, read the following excerpt from famed French novelist, Victor Hugo. “When I go to the grave I can say, as others have said, ‘My day’s work is done.’ But I cannot say, ‘My life is done.’ My work will recommence the next morning. The tomb is not a blind alley; it is a thoroughfare. It closes upon the twilight but opens upon the dawn.” Mr. Bennett’s “day’s work” may be done but his life and his legacy are not. His work remains. It now is our responsibility to “recommence the next morning.” Mr. Bennett lived a life of service committed to educational excellence and positive cultural change. May we follow in his footsteps and work to make our communities, our districts, our schools, our families, and ourselves the best possible! May we also be comforted to know, as Victor Hugo asserts, “The tomb is not a blind alley; it is a thoroughfare. It closes upon the twilight but opens upon the dawn.” May we make the most of the dawning of each new day! Rest in peace, Mr. Bennett! (Dr. David O’Shields is superintendent of Laurens School District 56.)

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