MAYOR’S COLUMN – APRIL 18TH, 2013

He was like a smiling spider. Once he got you trapped in his friendship web there was no escape, not that anyone ever wanted too. His name was Lawrence Bennewies, better known to everyone who knew him as Benny. Benny passed away on March 19th, just a few months short of his 102nd birthday on June 5th. He was small man in stature, with a huge heart and a million dollar smile. First met Benny in the early 90s when he was in his 80s and I marveled at meeting a man who believed in Will Roger’s quote about “never meeting a man he didn’t like. Or, in Benny’s case, a woman, as he always had a twinkle in his eye around female company. He exuded genuine joy about people and lived the Chinese proverb that ends with “if you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody else” to the fullest.

His own early life was not easy. He was born before the Titanic sunk and was raised in a stone farmhouse in Perth County with no running water or heat except the fireplace. He left school at the end of grade eight and, knowing farming and country life wasn’t for him, headed to Hamilton. He then came to Sarnia in 1944 and ended up running a bottling plant. After that job he was a jack-of-all trades until finally finding his calling in sales. He worked for Union Gas (In it’s a small world: he worked for “Deputy Mayor” Janis’ father Bruce) selling appliances door to door throughout the County. It was a different time for sales with no competition from big box stores or internet shopping and credit purchasing was limited. He would tell of always going to the back door of the house so when he knocked he could scout out the homeowners fridge and stove and then go to work on his sales pitch, usually successfully. After retiring from Union Gas in 1976, he was restless and became a car salesman for five years and a volunteer in the community.

Our paths crossed often at events and it was always a pleasure to see his big smile. And in the last few years, accompanied by our mutual friend, Phil Brain, started to visit Benny. Phil, a retired Laxness employee and community volunteer, was his long-time friend and foil. Watching the two of them together was like witnessing a great comedy team in action. Phil would constantly kid him, telling him that he was older than dirt and it was amazing how selective Benny’s hearing was when Phil was talking. Benny lost his wife Mildred in 2000 after 60 years of marriage and a number of families adopted him including Phil and his wife Laurie. Phil recalls that Benny would love to come for a lamb dinner. Phil was rushing home one night, worried he was late for dinner with Benny, when he saw that he was a couple of doors down the street with their neighbour, a widow, who had car trouble. Benny had the car hood up, appearing very professional, discussing the problem with the widow. She didn’t know that despite having been a car salesman he knew as much about automobiles as the Toronto Maple Leafs would know about Stanley Cup parades. Phil finally dragged him back home for dinner. Later that night when Benny was leaving he pulled two sets of car keys out of his coat pocket.

Puzzled at first, he then realized one set belonged to him and the other set to the widow. He insisted on returning them personally. After that night Benny, at age 95, got the nickname “Smoothie Bennewies”.

Benny’s first announcement anytime I saw him was “he didn’t want my job” which gave great relief given his popularity in the community.  One day on leaving the office he told the Clerk’s Department Staff he liked the place so much he was going to come back every day. They said they would love that and he could come back daily (something I’ve never heard from them in 25 years). Benny loved to entertain as a ventriloquist with his dummy, Jerry, and tell jokes so old that Adam and Eve had heard them originally. Once he forgot to bring Jerry when performing to a group of seniors and had one of the seniors sit on his lap as Jerry’s replacement. He was a member of the Strangway Community Centre, participating in the fashion shows and other events. He was a threat there with a pool cue just as he was at the Sarnia Lawn Bowling Club. The Observer ran a story on Benny at age 94 when he whipped reporter Shawn Jeffords lawn bowling. A few days later he insisted on taking Shawn for coffee and shared his life and philosophy to get out and live life and have fun every day.

Benny was a regular visitor to the seniors at his church who were in hospital, saying he was off to see the “old folks”, never acknowledging he was anywhere from 10 to 30 years older than the people he was visiting.

To celebrate Benny’s 100th birthday in June of 2011, a huge party was held at Landmark Village where he was living. Benny was the unofficial “cruise director” there, always sitting at a different table at dinner to meet new people. Hundreds of people showed up to celebrate his birthday and the celebration continued the next day at Redeemer Lutheran Church where another gathering was held to recognize the unofficial greeter for services at the church. A few weeks later Phil and I dropped by to see him at Landmark Village. He was still on cloud nine from the birthday parties. When Phil went to get a coffee, Benny said did you ever see a picture of my sister? I said “no” and he pulled out an 8 x 10 picture of a woman who had the family resemblance. To be kind, if Helen of Troy’s face launched a thousand ships, this woman’s face could have sunk 999 of them. What to say? At first was going to say “breathtaking”, remembering the Seinfeld episode with the character’s reaction to an ugly baby. But, before saying a word, Benny started laughing as it was a picture of him in drag from a Strangway Centre fashion show. A few weeks after that visit, he had a fall, ending up in hospital, then Sumac Lodge and finally Vision Nursing Home. Phil and I would visit and his ever-present sense of humour was a constant. In hospital he announced with a chuckle that he had decided he didn’t want to live to 200. On his 101st birthday at Sumac Lodge at one point in the conversation he said “I have told the Doctor I can’t drink coffee anymore as it hurts my eye.” I innocently asked “what did the Doctor say?”

Benny replied “He said take the spoon out of the coffee cup before you drink it.” At that point felt I had just replaced Jerry the dummy.

At his funeral service, Rev. Dr. Roger Ellis and Benny’s son-in-law, Rev. Doug Kramer, captured his life perfectly, both generating in their remarks many more laughs than tears– just the way he would have wanted it. In the last few years when Phil and I would arrive to visit him, Benny would say what an honour it was for us to be there and to be his friends. The response back, was always that it was the other way around, the honour was ours. And it truly was to be able to share the companionship of someone who was so grateful and optimistic about life, living every day with humour and faith. If one judges friends as wealth, Benny died a very rich man. So to Benny, one last goodbye, the honour of knowing you was ours.

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If you have any ideas or comments please call me at 519-332-0330 Ext. 3312 or 519-336-8092 or mayor@sarnia.ca