Recently a friend of the Hal Bennett family was sitting in their living room, looking at a wedding album and said, "Your Dad looks like such a happy guy. He's always smiling and always surrounded by people."
Belle Bennett, Hal’s widow, recalls that the friend was quite accurate in her observation. “He was loved by many people, was always surrounded by friends and family, and was happy – and these go hand in hand. In effect, in his passing we all have a large hole to fill, and we try to do so by living up to his expectations of each of us.”
Belle adds, “Hal exuded generosity of spirit and passion for life, and he strived for excellence in all endeavors – family, work and recreation. Now, all of us Bennetts hope and work hard to share in his unquenchable thirst for knowledge and unstoppable energy as we go forward in our lives. While we are without his physical presence, he is always present as we make decisions in life and live out his legacy.”
Hal entered Amherst from Bayonne High School in New Jersey. Following New York Medical College, he did medical training at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York City and went on to practice orthopedic surgery in New York and New Jersey for 35 years. He was affiliated with a number of hospitals, including the Hospital for Crippled Children and Adults, Orange Orthopedic Hospital and St. Barnabas Hospital.
Hal was an active board member in the Essex County and New Jersey Medical Societies, as well as the Community Action Committee for the Hospital for Crippled Children and Adults of Newark. In 1985 he received the honorary rank of Surgeon General of the State of New Jersey in recognition of his dedicated services to the Hospital and for the healing of crippled veterans of the United States Armed Forces. He was a founder of the Orthopedic Institute of New Jersey, which is devoted to orthopedic research and treatment to benefit the public.
Hal battled the debilitating effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, for over a year. He did not give in easily.
One month before his death, Hal and many of his family joined us at our 40th Reunion. When we sent out our first reunion notice, almost a year before, one of the first persons to respond was Belle, who told us that Hal wanted to be there, and that although he couldn’t talk, he wanted us to know he would come. He did. He became the symbol of all that was good about the Class of ’58 and the notable warmth that drove the reunion. Confined to his wheelchair, unable to talk, Hal communicated clearly that he cared about Amherst (he always had), about his family, about his classmates and about life.
Classmate Dick Danielson wrote him after the reunion, “You are an example of true courage in the face of severe adversity. I am sure that when I have to face challenges in the future, I will use you as an example and inspiration and source of strength.” His daughter’s eulogy agreed. “Everything he did was a challenge, what others would call a struggle. But he practiced what he preached to his children; he accentuated the positive and eliminated the negative.… He was a treasure, and there is not and likely never will be anyone as special and unique as he.”
This legacy lives on in his wife, Belle, who has his passion for life and unbreakable momentum, his five children, his sons-in-law and his four grandchildren, two of whom are named after him. Belle says “while future generations will never meet the man we know and love and referred to as Sweetheart, Dad, Harold or Hal, they will surely know of him and love him much like everyone else who ever met him.”
Joseph Harold Bennett died at his home in Short Hills, N.J., June 21, 1998.
Belle and Hal celebrating their daughter's wedding
in Short Hills, N.J., in the 1990s.