NEWBERRY — The Newberry County School District dedicated the District Office building to Bennie Bennett on Monday evening and during the dedication board members, colleagues and family members shared fond memories of both Bennett and the impact he had on Newberry County.
For 10 years Bennett served as the superintendent of the Newberry County School District. In March 2016 Bennett died in a car accident. Last year the Newberry County School Board voted to name the District Office after Bennett, naming it the Bennie D. Bennett Building.
“This is my 38th year in education, and I can honestly say I have never worked for a better person, nor a better man, nor a better leader than Bennie Bennett,” Superintendent Jim Suber said. “Not a day goes by that I do not think about him in decisions that I make, or sometimes if I am in a pickle wondering what I would do.”
Suber recalled how Bennett would “call him into his office, he would pull his glasses down his nose and he would say, ‘OK, Mr. Future Superintendent, I am gonna share something with you, and I want you to tell me what you think.’”
“There were a variety of things, some of them for real, some of them he probably needed someone to agree with his decision, but I am totally convinced there were a lot of times he had already clearly made his decision. He literally would bring me in that room as a teachable moment, because he never let those pass him by,” Suber said. “Just to give me the experience of, OK that is what I would have done.”
Jody Hamm, chairman of the Newberry County School Board, talked about how every decision Bennett made was for the children.
“Almost on a weekly basis we would have discussions about hard decisions he would have to make. He would come up with the reason why we should do something, and this hard headed country boy (Hamm) would always argue with him. By the end of the day he would convince me that he was right, and he was right because it was for the children,” Hamm said.
Although they would have those hard decisions, Hamm said he would like to think they would always end the day as friends.
“I really feel like we did lose a superintendent, but we lost a friend. Today we are here to dedicate this building. I think this was one of his proudest accomplishments, getting this building in place, not for him, but for his staff and for this School District,” Hamm said. “He was very proud of this District. He wanted to have a place people could drive by and say, ‘hey, folks in Newberry have got education first and foremost.’ I really believe this was one of his defining moments, when we got this building.”
Hamm mentioned that Bennett was not a fan of things being named after people, and during discussions about naming the District Office after him, that was brought up.
“I said well, he is going to rub his head today and wag his finger, but we are going to do this, because he has made an impact on this District, an impact on students, an impact on staff and he made an impact on me. I would like to think he made me a better board member and a better person,” he said.
Board members Lucy Anne Meetze and Lee Attaway also talked about Bennett and fond memories they had of him. Meetze discussed a thank you note she recently rediscovered that Bennett sent her after she and another board member travelled to Clover when Bennett was a candidate for superintendent.
She said sending that thank you letter, before even knowing he would get the job, showed the character of Bennett.
Attaway shared a memory of the first time he met Bennett — when they offered Bennett the position. Attaway said they made a good choice, and that he was not only a good superintendent, but a good friend.
Superintendent Dr. Darrell Johnson of Greenwood School District 50 knew Bennett for more than 30 years. He said he was a leader, a coach, a mentor, a pioneer, an innovator and most of all he was a friend.
“For those 10 years he was here in Newberry, I bet I talked to him many nights and he was always positive about the children, he always spoke kindly about this District. When things were going rough for other superintendents, Bennie was the guy that kept us together,” Johnson said. “Once you talked to him, you could see the confidence he had in himself, confidence in others and that caring attitude. That makes a difference for everyone, it did not matter what your ZIP Code was, or who you knew, but when you met Bennie Bennett your life was going to change.”
Johnson recalled a conversation the two once shared. Bennett once asked Johnson if the game is on the line, do you want the ball? Johnson said he did not know what to say, so he reversed the question back to Bennett at which point Bennett said, ‘yes, I want the ball, give it to me.’
“Newberry, you got the ball in your hand and you made the right move,” Johnson said.
Dr. Billy Strickland, representing Western Piedmont Education Consortium, said Bennett was a person who believed that children are always in the forefront.
“You can look at that sign and say, we are always going to keep children first, because that is what he wanted and that is what he represented. He did not talk about it, he lived it,” he said.
Frankie Bennett, Bennie Bennett’s widow, took the opportunity to thank Newberry for the kindness they have showed over the years.
“I remember well the night he called me on his way home from Newberry to say they offered me a job. Clover was home. I had never been anywhere else but Rock Hill, but I was committed to my marriage and I told him we would go, and it was a wonderful decision for us,” she said. “A year and a half ago when the accident happened, Newberry was good to me. I will always remember your kindness, I still have people who reach out to me. I want to say thank you, and may God continue to bless each and everyone of you.”
Kelly Bennett, Bennie Bennett’s son, said that throughout the years his father was superintendent, every Monday night he would get a call from his dad. Each time his dad would say, “tell me it is going to be OK.”
“He always just wanted to hear it was OK, and every decision he made was for the kids,” Kelly Bennett said. “Thank you for educating these young children. We appreciate it, we adore you, do not let anything you hear steer you the wrong way. As I said at the funeral, just walk in the shoes he left behind and everything will be OK.”