Memorial honors beloved firefighter
By Dwayne Robinson staff writer
May 25, 2003

Some people retire to Florida.

Jack Bennett came to serve.

And a memorial erected by his firefighter colleagues will make sure he isn't forgotten.

After moving to Martin County in 1981 at the age of 66, Bennett who died in April fought fires, commanded firefighters, drove fire trucks, and played an active role with the Hibiscus House children's charity.

"We were so fond of this man," said Scott Schlawiedt, a firefighter at Martin County Fire Rescue Station 14. "He was kind of like a father figure here."

Bennett was a charter member of the Hutchinson Island Fire Department, and he spent the next 20 years there.

Even in his late 60s, he could carry 40 pounds of equipment as a volunteer firefighter. A back injury and aging prevented him from continuing fighting fires in his 70s, but Bennett continued at the station.

He became the commander, or chief, of the volunteers on the island. He trained them, drove trucks, operated pumps and was the volunteer liaison to career firefighters.

Bennett came to the station every day, and on night calls he was often at a fire before the career firefighters got there, firefighter Todd Tucker said.

"Jack was so well respected that he was treated as a regular chief," Tucker said.

While working at the fire station, Bennett was also involved with community organizations like the Hibiscus Children's Center.

He was with the organization since it opened in 1989. He was on the board of directors, helped with fundraising, made repairs and helped out with the children, founder Lavaughn Tilton said.

He was also helpful during hurricane watches, taking the children to the shelter and staying with them to make sure they were safe, she said.

However, Bennett's health continued to deteriorate, and he retired again around 2001. But he remained a mainstay at the firehouse, bringing pastries to the firefighters almost every day.

Station 14 firefighters and paramedics were dispatched at times to Bennett's house for health reasons.

"He was fine each time, but the mere fact that you had to work on someone you love is hard to deal with," Tucker said.

In April, Bennett died at the age of 88 in Wilmington, N.C., while living with his oldest daughter. On Monday, his ashes were spread in the Atlantic Ocean, as he requested.

A memorial was built in Bennett's honor at Station 14, which is gathering donations to pay for the memorial, trees in memory of rescue workers and the Hibiscus Children's Center, Schlawiedt said.

Tucker said the memorial is there is to help current Station 14 firefighters know Bennett.

"Jack never wanted to end up in a nursing home and burden anyone," Tucker said. "I would be real lucky if I got to live a life like his."