Lemoore's Jim Bennett gone but never forgotten. He will be missed

By Ed Martin, Editor
Lemoore's Jim Bennett gone but never forgotten. He will be missed

It was easy to like Jim Bennett and even easier to respect. He delivered 51 years of unwavering service to the Lemoore High School District – a respectable tenure that began in 1968 when the fresh-faced teacher, with his Long Beach State diploma and a hard-earned teaching credential in hand, arrived in this tiny, out-of-the-way farming town in 1968.

Jim Bennett was a young man possessed. He wanted to teach, and if meant his first teaching gig was in this small quaint Valley town known primarily for cotton and Navy jets, so be it.

Bennett exemplifies the overused phrase, “excellence in education.” The kindly gentlemen with a perpetual smile and a Diet Pepsi in hand “excelled,” and once here, stayed for  more than five decades, the last 11 years providing stimulating science lessons to eager Lemoore Middle College High School students, driven kids armed with an insatiable appetite for new ideas – and a challenging curriculum.  These kids have their own school, a charter campus where all of the 300 or so students have an opportunity to earn a high school and community college diploma at the same time.

Jim Bennett
Jim Bennett

Bennett spent his final 11 years on earth helping those kids – overachievers many of them, reach their untapped potential. During the school’s graduation Friday night (May 24), the school’s principal, Charles Gent, announced that 16 of the 65 graduating seniors also earned a community college degree. While an empty seat sat on the stage, meant for the absent Bennett, one can only speculate that his spirit was there, smiling radiantly as each student received his or her diploma.

Fifty-one years later we celebrate a stellar career and mourn his untimely passing. His death, the result of a brief illness, came on the same day he was scheduled to join his fellow faculty members in celebrating the school’s graduation in the West Hills College Events Center.

It was just a few weeks ago that I learned that Bennett was planning to retire – again. When I called him with the intent of confirming the rumor and perhaps writing a story, he acknowledged it and jokingly told me his first retirement “didn’t take.”

He agreed to the story, and I scheduled a photographer for the following week. Sadly, Bennett wasn’t in class that day. Instead, he found himself in the hospital.

The perpetually optimistic Bennett originally retired in 2008 after 40 careers as a teacher, assistant principal, and finally as Lemoore High School’s principal from 2003 to 2008. Upon his retirement from the comprehensive high school, Bennett accepted the part-time gig with the district’s Middle College High School on the West Hills College Lemoore campus.

He was devoted to his job and the thousands of students over the course of five decades who came with it. He even lived across the street, and he walked to work every day. The boy from Bakersfield, forged with Bakersfield High School Driller blood, converted. He became a fervent believer in Lemoore’s Purple and Gold.

In 2008 – at the end of his first 40 years – Bennett told The Hanford Sentinel that upon his graduation from Long Beach State, he got his first teaching job in Lemoore, fully expecting to work a year or two then move on to “greener pastures.”

I guess he couldn’t find any “greener pastures” than the majestic cotton fields of Lemoore and Kings County.

The hyperactive educator filled many roles in his early years. While teaching a regular dose of biology, he took on driver’s training and oversaw student leadership. It was in 1985 that Bennett found a new calling when he was asked to join the administrative team as a vice principal. That first administrative job turned into an assistant principal’s job. In 2003 he took the principal’s post, holding on to it until his retirement (the first one) in 2008.

He was also involved in the community. He served several years on the Lemoore Elementary School District School Board. During his teaching career, he served as the Lemoore teachers’ union president. Not bad for a Bakersfield boy.

Principal Bennett had principles. In 2004, faced with a national craze called “freak” dancing, he took a stand against it and defiantly warned that there would be no prom until students decided to form a plan to ban the provocative dance.

The students complied and created a plan. The dance went on, absent the “freaking.”

Jim Bennett was the perfect choice to lead students and teachers in the first decade of the 21st Century. He explained his educational philosophy in that 2008 Sentinel interview. “You have to believe that all kids can learn at relatively high levels,” he told the local newspaper. “And it is our job as educators to create an environment where that learning happens. And we have to take it upon ourselves to support students who are not yet shining, who aren’t yet achieving.

“As educators, what we really are about is preparing all kids to be functioning self-supporting adults in a free society. And that transcends whatever subject we teach, whatever capacity we may be in. You have to believe that. It’s a belief system. If you don’t believe, you won’t be effective, and you will soon burn out.”

Jim Bennett was one of those teachers who practiced what he preached, and just maybe that’s why he was so successful.

Chop chop!

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