James R. Bennett was a witness to Alabama’s history before he helped make it, a calm voice, a trusted leader and a Gamecock through and through.
Bennett, the former Alabama secretary of state who oversaw campaign finance reforms and who had served 14 years as chairman of Jacksonville State University’s board of trustees, died Wednesday night, according to his family. He was 76.
Bennett’s family had written on Facebook in recent weeks about his struggle with liver cancer.
“He was very peaceful and comforted by friends and family to the very end. He died peacefully,” Bennett’s son, Don Bennett, said by phone Thursday from Hoover.
Current Secretary of State John Merrill said he considered Bennett and Glen Browder to be the best secretaries of state ever to hold the office.
When Browder, as secretary of state, proposed the Fair Campaign Practices Act — which set up the current campaign finance reporting system — in the 1980s, it was Bennett who shepherded the bill through the Senate, Merrill said.
Browder, speaking by phone Thursday, called Bennett a longtime friend, someone who was always easy to talk to, and who worked well with Democrats and Republicans alike.
“Jim and I were both always interested in election reform,” Browder said. “He was very positive for Alabama’s history, and contributed substantially.”
Bennett would later serve a 10-year stint as secretary of state. He was appointed to the position to fill a vacancy in 1993, then was elected twice — once as a Democrat and once as a Republican. When the office became vacant in 2013, Bennett was again appointed to the post, holding it until 2015. He served as commissioner of the state Department of Labor from 2003-2012.
Merrill said Bennett was respected by people in both parties.
“He was always viewed by people in the Legislature as being objective, thorough and conscientious," Merrill said.
Bennett was appointed a trustee at his alma mater, Jacksonville State, in 1983, and became chairman in 2002.
Despite his illness, Bennett remained politically active to the end. Merrill said Bennett asked him just two weeks ago what it would take to become a presidential elector.
Merrill set about getting Bennett approved to become a presidential elector. Bennett’s approval to be on the ballot as an elector — one of the 538 members of the Electoral College who select the U.S. president — came through on Tuesday, Merrill said.
Bennett arrived as as student at Jacksonville State University in 1957. He was involved with the university’s student newspaper and student government. The son of a high school band director, he played trumpet with Jacksonville State’s marching band, the Southerners. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Alabama in 1980.
After college Bennett worked as a reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald from 1961-71, covering those most tumultuous of years.
In fiction Bennett played a reporter as an extra in the 2014 movie “Selma.” In real life, though, he was there in 1963, standing next to Bull Connor when the Birmingham public safety commissioner gave the order to turn firehoses on peaceful protestors in Birmingham.
“He’s a good friend and Jacksonville State University’s number one Gamecock,” said Bill Meehan, who retired as JSU president in 2015. “He will be sorely missed.”
Bennett told an Al.com reporter in 2014 that ‘Sometimes I feel like Forrest Gump,” and that it wasn’t unusual for him to interview Gov. George Wallace, Connor and Martin Luther King Jr. all in one day.
“And he kept running the whole time too,” Meehan said with laugh. “When George Wallace stood at the schoolhouse door Jim Bennett was above him in the window taking notes.”
Meehan said that under Bennett’s leadership JSU saw record enrollment, a move of its athletics programs to the NCAA’s Division I, expansion of its football stadium and student housing and the launch of the university’s first doctoral program.
JSU President John Beehler said by phone Thursday that Bennett breathed JSU every day.
“He was a great guy to work with and work for,” Beehler said. “Everyone knew Jim Bennett. He was a consummate gentleman and excellent public servant.”
Gov. Robert Bentley released a statement Thursday praising Bennett, to whom he awarded the Governor’s Cross, an Alabama National Guard medal, on Monday.
"This morning I am saddened to learn of the passing of my friend and former cabinet member James R. ‘Jim’ Bennett,” Bentley’s written statement read in part. “Alabama has lost a wonderful leader and true public servant."
In his father's office hung a photograph of Bull Connor, Don Bennett said. One day he asked his father why he had that photo and was told to “look back in those trees.” Tucked back among the trees in that photograph was the image of his father, interviewing the protesters Connor had ordered be sprayed with firehoses.
Bennett said his father was subtle in his instruction to his children, and the advice he gave was always taken to heart.
Bennett said his father always taught him and his sister, Tara Bennett, to treat people well because “one day they might be your boss.”
Almost a year before he died, Bennett took a trip to Norway with a sister and niece, his son said, to discover where his ancestors had come to the United States from so many years before.
Bennett said his father found the towns in which his ancestors lived and worked, and where distant family still do. He met some of those living relatives, Don Bennett said.
Bennett had passions other than politics, his son said, and was appointed by former Gov. Albert Brewer to the Alabama Historic Ironworks Commission to restore Tannehill State Park in McCalla, where he would often visit.
“I don't know a time in my life when we didn't go to Tannehill State Park,” Tara Bennett, said. It was his “special place” and one that he cared for and wrote about extensively.
His book “Tannehill and the Growth of the Alabama Iron Industry” was published in 1999. He authored numerous books on Alabama history, and his latest, on the Pizitz family, is to be shipped out Friday, his son said. A fiction book about time travel is with the publisher awaiting release.
“He totally believed in us and any dream we could conceive of,” Tara Bennett said. “He was probably the best teacher I’ve had in my entire life.”
Bennett said her father never said a cross word but that “we knew if we had disappointed him it was the worst thing in the world.”
She described her father as a kind man who people were drawn to, and who cared about people and made it his mission to help.
“There's just never been a kinder man, ever,” she said.