Although the legacy of Kingswood School English teacher, Elizabeth Bennett* (1904-1983) does not involve Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, it is certainly the story of a woman who inspired and captivated multiple generations of students. Bennett started teaching at Kingswood in 1936 after completing her A.B. from Oberlin College and her A.M. from Radcliffe College. Prior to accepting the position at Kingswood, Bennett taught at the Hartridge School for Girls (Plainfield, NJ) and traveled in Europe and South Africa.
Bennett was born in New York City to William and Mary Umstead Bennett. Her father was a lawyer and a member of the New York state senate and her mother was a professor emeritus who taught pianoforte at Oberlin College. As a student at Oberlin, Bennett was an officer of the Women’s League – described in the campus yearbook as an organization for women to govern themselves and administer their affairs. She was later a member of the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
During her more than thirty years at Kingswood, Bennett taught English, History, Bible, and Creative Writing. Although she was a tough critic, she was known to be fair, and gained great admiration from both students and fellow teachers. In an anthology of memories, Elizabeth Bennett: A Word Portrait (1983), one former student states: “who could ever forget Elizabeth Bennett, who never raised her voice or lowered her standards for our work; who like Michelangelo, helped us chip out the readers and writers buried within us; who gave us all the charge of language? The light in her room did not all come through the windows or from the ceiling” (Carolyn Faulkner Peck, ’52).
Bennett or “Benny” as she was known by friends, was beloved not only by her students, but by her fellow teachers at Kingswood. During her summers off she regularly corresponded with Kingswood headmistress, Margaret Augur, and later Marion Goodale. Fellow faculty member, Gertrude M. White said of Benny, “Elizabeth Bennett: an unfashionable woman, a private woman, with unfathomable riches of mind and character and personality. Kingswood was lucky in her. We who knew her were lucky. Simply by being what she was, she enriched her world and ours.”
Inspired by Bennett and her passion for writing, several former students established the Bennett Fund in 1984 to honor a faculty member who is distinguished as a nurturer of writing and writers. In the Fall, the award recipient reads from recent works at the annual “Elizabeth Bennett Reading.” This year, the event takes place on Tuesday, September 19th at 6:30 PM in the Cranbrook School Library Reading Room.
With a new school year right around the corner, I enjoyed learning about this beloved teacher whose legacy lives on here at Cranbrook.
– Gina Tecos, Archivist
*Editor’s Note: It should be noted that the spelling of Elizabeth Bennett’s name varies from the fictional character in Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice.