Amherst Magazine

William S. Bennet II '58

Bill Bennet '58

(view alumni profile)

One of my strongest memories of our 50th reunion was Bill Bennet, in his wheel chair, in front of the crowd packed into the old Chi Phi front hall, as The Williams Reunion Jazz Band began to play. If there was anything Billo (as he was known to his friends) loved, it was dancing, whether on stage in Paris during his military “leave of absence” or at Amherst in front of the Stan McDonald Jazz Band. His struggles with Lewy Bodies Syndrome, a degenerative form of dementia first diagnosed in 2006, prevented Billo from joining the few of us dancing, but his feet were pumping up and down double time, his eyes sparkling, his face joyously smiling.

Bill died in his sleep Nov. 24, 2009 at a hospital in Boston, surrounded by his family. He had been in declining health since the reunion, and early the morning before, he had a terrible fall. Despite surgery, he never really regained consciousness.

Bill was born in Newburgh, N.Y., April 30, 1934, to Maxine and Augustus (“Gus”) Bennet ‘18. He attended the Kiski Minitas School in Pennsylvania, where he was a standout athlete, excelling at tennis, golf, swimming and football.  He entered Amherst with the class of 1956 but interrupted his college years after two years to serve in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany. He returned to the college September 1956, officially joining the Grand Cru Class, which always seemed fitting considering Billo’s persona.

Bill married Alice Talcott of New York City (Smith ‘58) and began a successful career in sales – Proctor & Gamble, then Look Magazine, then Jewel Food Stores, ending up as director of food store marketing. He earned an MBA at night from the University of Chicago.

Kalamazoo 1960s
Kalamazoo 1960's

In 1968 Bill led a group that purchased a regional dairy company, Michigan Cottage Cheese.  As president/CEO, he led a series of acquisitions and mergers.  In 1972, he and his family (Alice and children Jennifer, Stiles and Pratt) moved to Paris, France, for a year of intensive training (and fine dining) in preparation for his successful introduction of Yoplait Yogurt to United States.  Unfortunately, he was forced to sell his  two companies to General Mills a few years later. Over the next three decades, he was involved in a series of environmentally friendly companies, including Akva Spring Water, Clivus Multrum, The Country Hen and Stoneyfield Farms.  He served as a board member for the latter two for over a decade.

The picture here of Bill and his family in Kalamazoo, Mich., speaks volumes. At the peak of his entrepreneurship, there is Billo in all his glory, looking like something out of “The Great Gatsby,” on his paddle tennis court, which he had built as part of his pioneering efforts to spread that sport’s popularity throughout the Midwest.

As close friend John Bliss ‘56 says, “There was in him a presence I can only describe as a ‘rage to live’.... it was a force that transformed each setting, venue or place that Billo traveled through.... he did not make fun of people; he made fun with people, in a life that was basically one glorious celebration.” 

Billo and Alice with John Bliss '56
Billo and Alice with John Bliss '56

John, pictured here with Billo and Alice at the Stork Club (where else!) goes on to say, “To be around Bill was an openly shared encouragement – and I have to say at times even an admonition – to handle life in just that way.”  At Amherst, Billo’s flamboyant dressing style affected his friends – it accounts for my willingness up to today to wear brighter, livelier clothes, especially ties.

His Beta roommate one year, John Pendelton, has vivid memories of Billo heading out to Smith all decked out in suit and cravat, with trademark red kerchief flowing out of his vest pocket.  Billo's joy was worn outside as much as inside.

Billo with family at Sqwuam 2007 sm
Billo with family at Squam Lake 2007

Fraternity brother Tony Dominick adds, “One of the sayings I recall from Billo back then was “Today (or whatever) is a new chance to excel.”  It was nearly always lighthearted and most of us, including him, rarely did; we

may have tried a bit, but it was always in the delightful background.“  Pete Kunz’s memory of Billo is as a “cheerleader.” 

Billo and family Squam Lake 1980
Billo and Family, Squam Lake 1980

Billo’s glass was always much more than half full.  His son Pratt points to his “irrepressible love of life.”  A bunch of other adjectives (all starting with “e”) are fitting: energetic, entertaining, embracing, engaging, encouraging.  He truly was bigger than life, in the downs as well as the ups.
 
In our 25th reunion book, Billo observed how his life had turned.  “When  we left Amherst, all goals seemed obtainable.... Twenty-five years later, it’s become clear that not all of those are going to happen. Or, if they have, that overnight they can be wiped out....” He then said, with great self-awareness, “My joy has been being blind to all negatives.”

In our 50th reunion classsbook Billo wrote, “Nils Peterson once said I lived my life backward, that I got everything up front – got rich fast, got the beautiful smart wife, great kids and all that by my late 30s. The highlights were living in Paris for a year when the kids were in elementary school and taking them to Zermatt for Christmas and Kenya for Spring break! I thought I was invincible. The next 40 years weren't always so kind, but I have few regrets.”

On Golden Pond
Billo On Golden Pond

“One of life’s amazing wonders (and mysteries) is to see people evolve/transform/transmogrify,” wrote one relative. “Bill was about the most perfect example of an Alpha Male you could possibly find, and yet somehow he seemed to have ended his days in a state of quite amazing (and unexpected….) ‘Zen.’ One can only wish to be blessed, oneself, in the same way.”  I , too, noted a more reflective side of Billo as his dreams got a bit sidetracked, and his health became something he could no longer take for granted. 

Bill showed a humility that one might feel was contradictory to a person so full of bravado and life.  I saw nothing inconsistent in his ability to recognize reality, because he approached those problems with the same energy he approached opportunities.  His sense of humor prevailed, as did his belief that he was going to give whatever his best shot.  He certainly gave everything – and everyone – that.

Billo with grandkids at Squam (2)
Billo with grandkids at Squam Lake

In addition to his wife and children, Bill is survived by four grandchildren and a sister, Lynda B. Lynch, of Atherton, Cal.  The family will hold a celebratory memorial service at their house in Squam Lake, N.H., in August 2010.

The night after Bill died, as his son Pratt drifted off to sleep, he “saw Dad in a big green field, in his mid-20s, tall, lean, with jet-black hair, wearing a bright yellow track suit. He bent over into the starting position, then raced across the field at supersonic speed! What a great way to think of him – finally doing everything he hasn't been able to in his aging, limiting body.” 

It’s a wonderful way to see Billo on his way to his next great adventure. Hold on to your seat, St. Peter!

– Allen Clark '58

Comments

I've already added the saying, "A new chance to excel" as part of Billo's rep, but let me also say that I was a great admirer of his, even though our personalities were so different.  I also think he respected me.  It was great, if frustrating, to see him at the 50th, but I got a chance to also meet his sons and see his 'old' self emerge as best it could.

You know part of the reason he was encouraged to leave college was that he was discovered helping a lady in (0r out; can't remember) of her dress.  How delightful,  as a contrast to his then questionable grades.  And how times have changed in terms of dress, or lack of.

Tony

 

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