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Longfellow V.P. honored by fund

By Jeffrey Obser, Daily Planet staff
Friday October 26, 2001

Veteran educator Thelette Bennett receives award for lifetime dedication 


Thelette A. Bennett, vice principal at Longfellow Arts and Technology Magnet Middle School and a 32-year veteran of the Berkeley school system, received a Berkeley Community Fund Award Thursday for a “lifetime of dedication to educating and nurturing Berkeley students.” 

Bennett, 54, brimming with energy, juggled phone calls and congratulatory flower deliveries while telling a reporter her life story. 

On her desk were a few odd specimens from the many student presents she has received over the years, most prominently a ceramic Fred and Wilma Flintstone. 

“I’m on my second generation of kids here now,” she said. “My kids’ kids are here. I can give them a look and they act right!” 

Bennett, who has lived in Berkeley her entire life – except her first few days at Oakland Kaiser Hospital – went to work as a student activities’ director at Berkeley High in 1969. 

She stayed there for 22 years. 

“I really like and love kids, and I feed off of them most of the time,” she said. 

Terry Doran, school board president, worked with Bennett at the high school and the students loved her so much that each senior class competed to outdo its predecessor in buying the most impressive gift. The contest culminated in a fur coat that “embarrassed” Bennett for its price tag. 

“She just always was able to connect to the wide array of students at Berkeley High in very positive ways,” Doran said. “I really enjoyed working with her.”  

Ten years ago, Bennett moved to Longfellow, first as an activities coordinator and more recently as vice principal with the official title “Director of Community Relations.”  

In the years since, the school has won an astonishing array of awards for its innovative technology curriculum, including the 2000 Smithsonian Technology Award. Bennett insisted the credit for this should mostly go to Nancy Elnor, the school’s technology director, and to Jim Rousey, its ubiquitous technology volunteer. 

Rousey pushed some of that credit back in Bennett’s direction. 

“Without a doubt, Thelette Bennett is one of the single most important factors in the success of Longfellow,” he said . “Her dedication and willingness to sacrifice her personal life to support this school and student population here is without parallel in my 30 years of volunteering in schools.” 

Bennett’s parents, Harold and Laura Bennett, were born in the South but moved the family to Berkeley from Beaumont, Texas in 1944 to escape segregation. “They wanted to give their kids a better opportunity,” Bennett said, and they set an example with longtime commitments to community groups such as the YMCA, the San Pablo Neighborhood Council, and the South Berkeley Church. 

“I grew up with a village of people, and they all made sure I came up on the straight and narrow,” she said. 

Bennett said her parents’ take-charge attitude has shaped her approach to students. When she has to give them a talking-to for fighting, she said, she tells them to refrain from assigning blame or fancying themselves as victims. 

“My mama said: ‘You do the crime, you do the time.’ And my father said: ‘Life isn’t fair – you handle it.’ So I say (to misbehaving students): ‘This is what happened, how are you going to be successful in this setting?’ How could you have done this differently so you don’t get in trouble this time?” 

Bennett said the shock of recent events has made her more convinced than ever that changing the world has much to do with how the next generations grow up. 

“I always tell them: ‘You’ve got to do a better job than we’ve done,’” she said. 

Back in the days when she worked at Berkeley High, Bennett won admiration for her creative and often funny ways of teaching life’s lessons. Marc Breindel, a 1984 graduate and Berkeley resident, said she held class registrations by holding a lottery and letting students into the cafeteria in groups. They then ran around from station to station selecting classes on a first-come, first-served basis. 

“So it was like a game show, or like musical chairs with a thousand kids,” Breindel said. “She would stand in the middle of the hurricane, and she was like the queen of the hurricane, in a good way. She would tell us all she was preparing us for college registration and she would yell, ‘When you’re in the real world you’re going to have to fight for everything just like you have to fight for these classes!’” 

“Everybody loved her,” Breindel added. 

Bennett said: “When I walk through Berkeley there’s always someone hollering, ‘I remember you from high school!’”  

Doran, the school board president, said he had asked Bennett if she wanted to be the Berkeley High principal each time the position has become vacant in recent years. “She said she wasn’t ready,” he said. 

When the question was posed to Bennett on Thursday, she burst into laughter. 

“I have no comment!” she said, her voice up in the high notes. 

“I have some more growing to do. I haven’t grown up yet!” 

The Berkeley Community Fund annually rewards outstanding community leaders and organizations. Bennett is one recipient of this year’s Berkeley Community Award, a non-monetary honor. The other is Regina Minudri, the retired Director of Library Services. Former mayor Jeffrey Shattuck Leiter was awarded the organization’s Benjamin Ide Wheeler Medal for longtime service to Berkeley, and two $5,000 grants went to Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency, which assists homeless adults and youth, and Youth Radio. Smaller grants were awarded to 21 other community organizations. 

“I’m very humble and I’m very thankful to even be acknowledged in this way,” Bennett said, “but it’s important to stay grounded. If I happened to stand up a little taller, it’s because I stand on other people’s shoulders.”