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Cedars in Lebanon
Sharing the land grant mission with the world
By David C. Peters, Oklahoma State University Archives
Dr. Henry G. Bennett had imagination, vision and perspectives that allowed him to balance the importance of tradition with necessity for change. His humble background helped him embrace core values of service to others while his academic experiences taught him the importance of flexibility in ever-changing economic and political environments as president of Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College from 1928-1951.
Bennett’s ability to adapt was illustrated by his acceptance of air travel when the convenience of flight became more common in the early years of Oklahoma. Flying provided the opportunity for Bennett to meet more people over a larger area in a shorter amount of time. His lifelong mission to serve others was personified when he eagerly agreed to serve his country in an assignment with the United States Department of State in 1950, which would take him around the world and improve the lives of thousands.
As World War II was ending, there were some who simply wanted the troops to return home and the United States to return to a policy of isolation from the rest of the world. There were others who felt the nation had important roles to play in rebuilding Europe, the Far East and developing regions of the world for humanitarian purposes and to limit the spread of communism. Bennett was called upon to help in this transition from wartime activities to assistance efforts providing recovery aid and development.
He represented United States’ land grant colleges as part of the U.S. delegation attending the International Food and Agricultural Organization Conference held in Quebec, Canada, on October 16, 1945. Bennett worked closely with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Clinton P. Anderson. This was an effort organized through the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization to restore European agricultural production, serving as a precursor to the European Recovery Program, or the Marshall Plan, named for Secretary of State George Marshall. It would take considerable time to organize massive programs such as the Marshall Plan, and the U.S. Congress did not pass legislation authorizing the Marshall Plan until the summer of 1948.
On January 20, 1949, President Harry S. Truman delivered his only inaugural address to the nation. After 16 years of Democrats controlling the executive branch, and with the death of the popular President Franklin Roosevelt, many had not expected Truman to win the presidential election in 1948. Truman’s inaugural address became known as the “Four Points Speech” in which he challenged the nation to support the United Nations, continue support of an economic recovery worldwide, strengthen nations fighting aggression, and share the scientific knowledge and technical skills of America with the developing world.
In March 1949, the U.S. Army invited Bennett to serve in Europe for several months during that summer. After approval from the Board of Regents and a temporary reassignment of his administrative duties, Bennett was released for service overseas. The U.S. Secretary
of Agriculture visited Stillwater and met with Bennett in May 1949. Bennett was appointed to serve in the U.S. Army’s Civilian Agricultural Department from June through August.
He traveled throughout postwar Europe documenting food shortages and providing proposals for improved agricultural production and resource distribution. Bennett’s expertise in administration, agricultural education, extension and research was utilized and shared across the European continent during forums and conferences. He traveled to more than a dozen countries from Ireland, Spain and Austria into the zones occupied by the French, British and American forces, flying 25,000 miles during his three-month trip before returning home to Stillwater.
The following year, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie requested Bennett come to Ethiopia as a consultant in education and agriculture. The invitation requested Bennett develop an extension system similar to the land grant system in the United States. On March 31, 1950, Bennett left for Washington, D.C., and traveled on to Addis Ababa to spend six weeks conferring with Ethiopian education and agriculture leaders. Upon his return to Washington in late May 1950, Bennett met with Oklahoma Senator Robert S. Kerr who arranged a meeting with President Truman. Truman and Bennett talked about his trip and shared their philosophies regarding international development assistance.
Six months after meeting Truman, Bennett was appointed an Assistant Secretary of State and the Administrator of the Technical Cooperation Administration on November 15, 1950, during a White House conference with Truman. Approved only one month earlier on October 27, 1950, under the umbrella of the Department of State, the TCA was commonly referred to as the Point Four Program taken from the last section of Truman’s inaugural speech.
The Board of Regents granted Bennett an extended leave of absence at the November 17, 1950, meeting. Two other administrators, Oliver Willham and Randall Klemme, were named to fill Bennett’s responsibilities when he was out of town. Bennett started work on November 24, 1950, in Washington. He would return to Stillwater every two to four weeks to deal with situations that required his specific attention, and his family was allowed to stay at the president’s home on campus.
Traveling the world
Bennett would visit more than 100 development projects in 33 countries during the following 13 months. He sought to work with local populations by providing appropriate technologies to assist with their individual, and frequently unique, circumstances. Bennett garnered significant attention from Congress when he rejected larger appropriations in favor of more manageable allocations free from political influence and control. The budget his first year was $34 million, and projects focused on agricultural production, health needs and living standard improvements. Twelve million dollars were distributed out of his budget to United Nations’ projects already underway.
The Point Four Director would discover very quickly that in many parts of the world agricultural practices had remained unchanged for thousands of years. In Egypt, for example, fields were tilled and crops planted using the same techniques that were applied during the time of the pharaohs.
Bennett would discover similar challenges in Central and South America. He visited Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama. During other travels, he reached Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Paraguay and Peru. In Asia, Bennett visited Ceylon, India, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Philippines and Thailand. Everywhere he went he found people in need, but also those willing to work together for progress.
When Bennett returned to Stillwater his time was bursting with activity. He arrived home late Wednesday evening on April 4, 1951. The next day he attended a Board of Regents meeting where they were inspecting bids for the new college library. Later in the day, he met with the School of Commerce and spoke at an annual dinner celebration. On Thursday afternoon, he was also involved with the preparations for a performance on campus by Margaret Truman, the president’s 26-year-old daughter. Ms. Truman, a soprano, sang in the college auditorium that evening in front of a capacity crowd as part of a fundraiser to support construction of a children’s wing at the Stillwater Municipal Hospital. On Saturday, he participated in the college’s annual Dairy Days and met with those attending.
Several days later, Bennett was back in Washington and shared with President Truman a scrapbook of clippings, reviews and pictures collected from Margaret’s performance in Stillwater.
Truman appreciated both this gesture and the fact that his only child had been treated well during her time on the OAMC campus. The scrapbook also cemented the friendship developing between the two presidents.
In late April 1951, Bennett began a tour in Africa visiting Liberia, Egypt and Nigeria before heading to Iran. In June and July, he returned to Africa and spent two weeks in Ethiopia finalizing a project in part inspired during his trip the year before as a guest of Haile Selassie. One of the first Point Four Project agreements was signed in Addis Ababa on June 16, 1951, and Bennett’s relationship with Selassie was also growing more meaningful and stronger.
In December 1951, Bennett traveled to Rome, Italy; Athens, Greece; Cairo, Egypt; Jerusalem, Israel; Amman, Jordan; Beirut, Lebanon; and Baghdad, Iraq. On the next leg of their journey, Henry and his wife Vera, who was accompanying him on this trip, died instantly on a mountain near Tehran, Iran. Their plane crashed during a snowstorm while attempting
to land at the local airport on Saturday, December 22, 1951. The four-engine plane from an Egyptian airline exploded and burned after hitting the granite hillside. Three other Point Four staff and sixteen additional passengers also died in the accident. Traveling with the Point Four contingent were: Benjamin H. Hardy, public affairs officer; James T. Mitchell, audio-visual specialist; and Albert C. Crilley, Bennett’s special assistant. Years earlier, Hardy had been the principal proponent for the Point Four Program, and it was primarily his work and inspiration in the State Department that had moved the proposal to Truman’s desk.
Funeral services began on Friday, December 28, 1951, in Tehran, Iran, at the American Mission
Church after the bodies had laid in state at the American Embassy. The following day, memorial ceremonies were held at the state department auditorium in Washington. Flags were flown at half-staff across the nation. The crated caskets left Tehran on a military transport plane on January 5, 1952, and arrived in Washington on the 8th. The Bennetts’ remains were transferred on an Air Force plane to Stillwater, where Strode Funeral Home coordinated the arrangements. Vesper services were held Sunday afternoon January 6, 1952, in the Student Union exhibition room. Seventy-five hundred mourners gathered in Gallagher Hall on Thursday, January 10, 1952, for the 2 p.m. funeral. Classes were dismissed and offices on campus closed at 11 a.m. A proclamation by the Stillwater mayor recommended the closing of all Stillwater businesses at 1 p.m.
Two matching caskets covered in carnations rested beneath a large floral arch at one end of the floor in Gallagher Hall. The crowd included boys and girls, students, college staff, citizens, Oklahoma Governor Johnston Murray, U.S. Senator Robert S. Kerr, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Charles Brannan, and Johnson Avery with the U.S. State Department. The nine members of the Board of Regents served as pallbearers.
Tributes poured in from across the country and world. President Truman referred to Bennett as “a great teacher of the simple ideas of cooperation and brotherhood.”
U.S. Senator Mike Monroney of Oklahoma shared, “His down-to-earth philosophy, reflected in his Oklahoma work and transposed to the greater international field, made him one of the great men of our time.”
Bennett’s good friend Senator Kerr stated, “He long devoted himself to the service of his fellow man and has now sacrificed his life to that service. No man could do more.”
U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson commented, “Dr. Bennett was a simple man, but one with a positive belief in man’s essential goodness, and possessor of a positive hope for man’s future. He dreamed no little dreams, and he had the magic to make those dreams a reality … he was one of those rare human beings whose faith in his fellows inspired them to unselfish action far beyond their normal duties and capabilities.”
There were also many sentiments expressed of warm admiration for his life. One of the most meaningful and moving tributes was written by Eric Sevareid of CBS News and broadcast on Christmas Eve 1951, only two days after the plane crash. Sevareid regretted that so few Americans had heard of “Dr. Bennett, for he was something rare among us here, something very earthy and strong and simple, representative somehow of the enduring simplicities, the natural, positive hopes that still prevail on the farms and in the little towns across this country.” Sevareid closed the newscast saying, “His death is a great loss, for he had started something here, something fresh and wonderful, in a government where men and ideas have grown tired and worn. But it seems almost appropriate that he should die at Christmastime, out in the Middle East, in that arid, biblical vale of tears where the idea of brotherhood was first made human. He knew that once there had been cedars in Lebanon; and he knew how to make them grow there again.”
While there had been proposals considering the OAMC campus as the location for their final burial, Henry and Vera Bennett were interred at Highland Cemetery in Durant, Oklahoma, on Friday, January 11, 1952. He was 65 years old at the time of their deaths, and she was 62. Henry Bennett, who was known to sleep for only two or three hours a day, would now rest in peace for eternity beside his beloved spouse.
In 1954, Ethiopia Emperor Haile Selassie visited the United States, which included a stop at OAMC in Stillwater on June 18. There were dignitaries and crowds with speeches, dinners and receptions planned for this day of celebration. At 10 p.m. that evening after all official functions concluded, Selassie held a private meeting with members of the Bennett family. This was a rare honor and symbolic of the esteem that Selassie held for Dr. Bennett. The small group had an extended and relaxed visit, and the emperor was even photographed holding one of the Bennett granddaughters on his lap. They shared fond memories of his friend and their father Henry Garland Bennett with the impact of his life and legacy surviving for generations to come.
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Published by STATE Magazine Editor Elizabeth Keys, Winter 2016, Volume 12, Number 2
Uploaded on December 1, 2016