Remembering President Bennett
Bethel’s fourth president (1982-1988), The Rev. James “Jim” A. Bennett, Ph.D., of Elkhart, Ind., passed away yesterday afternoon, Oct. 8, after years of declining health. He was 78 years old.
Visitation will be held Monday, Oct. 12 in the Weaver Rotunda of the Everest-Rohrer Chapel/Fine Arts Center from 4 p.m. – 7 p.m. The funeral will be at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 13 in the Everest-Rohrer Chapel/Fine Arts Center – Auditorium on Bethel’s campus.
Gregg Chenoweth, Ph.D., president of Bethel College, expressed his condolences to the family and appreciation for Jim Bennett.
“During my Inauguration Ceremony in 2013, Jim laid his hand of support on my shoulder during a Prayer of Dedication,” Chenoweth said. “I knew then any progress I might make for Bethel comes from standing on his shoulders, and others who came before me. This pastor-educator-administrator lived a life which proves, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, ‘dying isn’t so dreadful because we transform death by our Faith.’”
Bennett was Bethel College’s fourth president, serving the school faithfully for six years during a particularly challenging era (1982-1988). A 1961 graduate of Bethel with a degree in theology, Bennett was a member of Bethel’s board of directors from 1975 to 1980, serving as chair the last two. He was hired as Bethel’s director of institutional advancement in 1980, before becoming president in 1982.
The years under President Bennett’s leadership would be some of the most challenging in the college’s history. He was a visionary at a time when the college was in “life preserving mode” with limited capital to expand; therefore, many of his visions would be fulfilled by others at Bethel in later years. Never the less, Bennett brought a number of positive changes to Bethel’s campus.
The 30,000-square-foot Otis and Elizabeth Bowen Library was built under his leadership, the first building in what became a distinctive new architectural style on campus. Bennett had been part of its planning, first as the board chair, and later as the director of institutional advancement. The library’s dedication and ribbon-cutting on March 23, 1984, drew Governor Robert Orr, both South Bend and Mishawaka mayors and numerous other dignitaries, including Bowen himself.
A considerably smaller construction project, but none the less vital for a growing athletic program, was a press box for the baseball field built in 1985. In 1986, the baseball team won the NCCAA tournament, the first in a flood of national titles for Bethel College sports teams.
In spite of the brevity of Dr. Bennett’s presidency, the curricular developments under his leadership were impressive. He enlarged the scope of academic programs to meet the changing needs of the church and community, launching a nursing program, a visual communication major, the master of ministries program and the adult studies program.
Bennett hired Joyce Giger, one of Bethel’s first female, African-American directors, to lead the nursing program in 1983. The addition of the nursing program led to an enrollment spike of 138 students for a record high of 539 new students in 1983 (up substantially from the record low of 409 new students in 1982).
Also in 1983, a visual communication major was added. The initial response to this addition was positive and eventually developed into three majors with emphases in environmental design, web design, and web development, during an era of technological advance.
Bennett also initiated a management of human resources (MHR) program that would become the highly successful organizational management program within the adult division of the college. This entrepreneurial venture expanded the college’s offerings to adult students desiring to complete a degree through a convenient delivery system. By offering classes in cohort groups in an evening seminar format, while granting credit for life learning, the MHR program allowed working adult students to complete an undergraduate degree in one year.
Also under the Bennett presidency, the master of ministries program developed a new delivery system, availing itself to pastors from a distance. Classes were offered in a three-day, condensed monthly format, allowing visiting professors from seminaries, as well as nationally recognized pastors and ministry leaders, to teach graduate courses. The program could be completed in a year and a half.
After leaving the presidency in 1988, Bennett re-entered the pastoral ministry and helped further develop Prairie Camp, a Missionary Church Camp located in Elkhart, Ind.
Bennett was born Aug. 12, 1937, in Kalamazoo, Mich., where he spent his entire childhood. The youngest of three children, Bennett gave his heart to the Lord at the age of 15, was active in the Kalamazoo United Missionary Church and frequently attended Brown City Camp. A gifted musician and athlete, Bennett had to forgo competitive sports in high school in order to work to help provide for his family.
In 1956, Bennett enrolled at Bethel College where he met his wife, Betty Nordgren. A year later they were married. Bennett pursued two majors while at Bethel: theology and education. He served as a class officer for three years, a member of several music teams and chaired the religious life committee. During his last two years of college, he also served as a student pastor at Madison Chapel near Wakarusa, Ind. Following graduation, Bennett took over the pastorate at Oak Grove United Missionary Church.
Bennett eventually entered public education, taking a teaching position near Flint, Mich. This would ultimately lead to the role of assistant superintendent of schools in Niles, Mich. However, he maintained ministerial credentials with the Missionary Church, preaching in various locations on Sundays and remaining active in a local Missionary Church.
Bennett was elected to the Bethel board of directors in 1975 and served seven years, the last two as the board chairman. In 1980, he was selected by President Beutler to fill the role of director of institutional advancement. Bennett served two years under Beutler and with the departure of William Carothers departure in 1981, he assumed various responsibilities of the former assistant to the president. It was in this capacity of service that Bennett was appointed the fourth President of Bethel College on March 19, 1982.
Most everyone who met Bennett did not stay a stranger for long. His personal warmth, wide grin and contagious laughter endeared him to most of whom he came in contact. Making friends came easily to President Bennett. As an ordained minister, Bennett was called upon to speak in churches and camp meetings. He traveled wherever summoned to share the Gospel and promote the college, frequently traveling with musical groups from the college. His travels even took him to China, Korea, and twice to India (where he met Mother Theresa through a connection with then president of the United Missionary Church Dr. Pronoy Sarkar).
Bennett, with his wife Betty, had two children, Carrie ’86 (Dale Fish ’89) and James (Alisa ’89) Bennett ’88. Four of their grandchildren have attended Bethel College including Elizabeth Fish ’12, Sarah Fish ’15, Jimmy (Katherine Zook ’13) Bennett ’15 and Johnny Bennett, who is planning to graduate in 2017.