Bennett History

A Brief History of Bennett High School

Civic-Minded Louis J. Bennett Donates Land
Louis Jackson Bennett, a prominent North Buffalo resident, donated over 415 acres of prime real estate to the city. At the urging of the Mercer Club, Bennett gave the land on which Bennett High School is now located. His desire was to keep the parklike atmosphere of the area and prevent further encroachment of the railroad system on the area. 

Mr. Bennett never lived to see the opening of “his” school, although his influence and foresight are still being appreciated by the citizens of the entire city. 

School Opens
The new building attracted over 2,500 students
Louis Jackson Bennett donated the land for Bennett High School and All-High Stadium. As a great civic leader he wished to give back to the community and to keep North Buffalo away from the railroad expansion. Ground breaking ceremonies were held on November 8, 1923, with Mr. Bennett assisting. 

Although he would not live to see the completion of the two million dollar school, he knew that his building would be hailed as a model and was, perhaps, the best equipped school in the state. 

Charles Elbert Rhodes was appointed principal in 1922. Prior to leading Bennett, he was a teacher and assistant principal at Lafayette High School. He came to Buffalo in 1894 as a pastor at Central Park Presbyterian Church. Among the highlights of his new school was a model apartment housed on the fourth floor. The room had all the conveniences of a home and provided good practice for “The job of a modern housewife.” 

The main hallway, painted white, featured a Parthenon frieze. This led to the auditorium, with 1,336 seats on the main floor and 900 in the balcony. The library, painted green, held over 8,000 books and had two librarians to handle the students’ demands. 

Seventy-five faculty members greeted the 2,500 students on the first day of school, Tuesday, September 8, 1925. The Buffalo News’ headline was, “School Crush Holds Up Traffic.” 

Assemblies were held every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the entire school. Tuesdays and Thursdays were for the departments. 

Official Dedication
Bennett was officially dedicated on November 24, 1925 at a ceremony attended by all the local politicians and dignitaries. The Mercer Club erected a plaque honoring Louis Bennett. Shortly after, Mr. & Mrs. Darwin D. Martin donated two bronze tablets. “The Gettysburg Address” and “The Offer to the College” were mounted at the rear of the auditorium. 

Annex classrooms were erected in 1926 due to overpopulation (2,641 students) of the building. Excellence in school and good attendance were stressed. Students who were late received deductions for each instance. Over 2,800 students were enrolled by 1929, forcing eight classes to meet in the auditorium. 

A full range of activities were also offered. Twenty-five clubs were established, along with orchestra, band, chorus and drama. The first play, “The China Shop” was producted on May 3-4, 1926. 

The Beacon was published four times each year. The first yearbook fund-raiser was the presentation of a movie. 

The 30s – The Great Depression
It was the decade of the Great Depression. Years of few jobs, little money, brown bag lunches, 3.2 beer, doctors pumping gas and FDRs promise of a New Deal. But, it was not all cynicism and despair, in spite of it all, Bennett students coped, and, had fun! 

During this time, high school was the focus of social life and recreational activities. Inside the school, founding principal Charles E. Rhodes and later Emmons B. Farrar, urged students to disregard childish habits, think logically, and believe that “the best is yet to be.”  

The 40s - Spirit of Youth
A triumph over the adversities of World War Two
Studies were interrupted by air raid drills and some of the faculty became wardens during the evening blackouts. In addition, students knitted socks, rolled bandages for the Red Cross, wrote letters to Bennett servicemen and collected newspapers and scrap metal for the war drives. 

The principal, Emmons B. Farrar was called into the service of our country on February 15, 1942 and his duties at Bennett were turned over to Mr. Ray Spear from Riverside. 

In 1943 Bennett raised $202,930 in War Bond sales to gain the privilege of christening a plane The Bennett Tiger. The school also won the right to fly the School at War flag as 90% of the student body were War Stamp and Bond holders. By December 1944 a total of $690,852.75 in War Bonds was raised. 

The most difficult aspect of those years was saying good-bye to the classmates who went off to serve our country. All watched as the numbers changed on the large banner that hung in the auditorium. There was a numbered blue star for the men in service, a numbered gold star for the men who had lost their lives. By 1945 the war had claimed the lives of 78 Bennettonians. 

The 50s – Big Changes in Education
Development, technology and legislation
The 1950s marked the beginning of the exploration of space. This had a huge impact on the educational system. Sputnik forced the U.S. into a game of catch-up. Through the National Defense Education Act, teachers were better trained in the arts, math and science. The concept and practice of Honors classes were introduced to better prepare students. 

The landmark desegregation order of Brown vs. The Board of Education in 1954 started the impetus for redistricting Buffalo Schools. Also, many houses were torn down in North Buffalo to make way for the Kensington Expressway. These all change the demographics of students attending Bennett. 

But the change made for new challenges. As the increase of technology took hold on America and the realization of the Cold War, a new force was placed on being ready. Students had challenging classes with honorary societies in every subject. There were clubs for everything – many of them reached out into the community as well. 

The times were changing. A sense of introspection and doubt was beginning to replace the frivolity of the early years. It influenced the literature, drama and art of the day. 

The 60s – Maintaining Standards
The time for change, a time for hippies, Woodstock, the beginning of new music and new phrases. Under the leadership of Principal Lloyd A. Miller, Bennett continued to focus on higher standards. He was also responsible for the Activities Room and adding a new teacher’s parking lot. Mr. Miller worked to maintain “the leadership and to be conscious of the need for changes and development to fit the ever-changing needs of the pupil.” 

Classes were added in additional disciplines, and Bennett took part in the change that was occurring throughout the world. Students practiced Civil Defense drills, focused on racial harmony, and became acutely aware of the shrinking world and the threat of war. In 1967, Bennett hosted Bobby Kennedy as the guest of the Board of Education. 

The 70s – Turmoil
Shortages of energy, strikes and snow storms hit hard
The leaders of Bennett in the 1970s, Leonard Sikora and Ronald Meer faced many challenges. Winters during an energy crisis forced building temperature reductions. The school opening in 1976 saw the first-ever teachers strike, with 100% of Bennett teachers participating for the 20 day walkout. School remained open, staffed by substitute teachers and administration members. The school was remodeled from 1974-1977 with new doors, lowered ceiling, new lights and fresh paint. Then on January 28, 1977 a blizzard fell upon the city, forcing schools to close for two weeks. 

Two trends in education impacted the nation’s schools during this time. Major trends included a disillusionment in government, advances in civil rights, increased influence of the women’s movement, a heightened concern for the environment and increased technology due to space exploration. Social movements will making their way into high schools. Forced busing to achieve racial integration often led to violence and disruption of the educational process.  

The 80s – Magnet Programs Begin
Three specialized departments attract top students
Three magnet programs were created at Bennett in an attempt to stabilize the dwindling academic climate at Bennett. The Computer Magnet, International Studies Magnet and the Law Magnet were created during these years. 

Marilyn Wittman, the first female principal, was appointed in 1984 with an intent on maintaining a traditional approach to education. She brought order, discipline and basics in education to a building, many thought, was out of control. Her tough approach brought a much needed improvement to Bennett and an increase in education and attendance. 

The 90s – Big Changes Ahead
New direction for Bennett rules and regulations
The Quality School Model was introduced in 1994 to help students take control of their own actions. It was believed that when students realize their power to control their destiny, they will make the right choices and succeed.  

In response to plummeting test scores, the Board of Regents announced that all students would need to pass Regents’ exams in English 3, Global Studies 10, U.S. History, Biology and Math A. Students were required to take foreign language classes and Introductions to Occupations. Increased time was spent working to get students ready to pass these exams. Systems were developed so that groups of students and teachers could work together. 

Into 2000
The Y2K entered without any of the problems that were forecast.  However, the New York State Regents standards were now in effect for all students. All seniors faced the challenge and won!

Community service remained an important part of senior requirements. The district enacted an attendance policy of 85%. A new computer lab was installed in the building, while every classroom was connected with new computers and internet technology. 

In celebration of the 75th anniversary, the entire building was painted.

Notable Alumni
Rich Products Corporation founder Robert E. Rich, Sr. was the starting center for the Bennett High School football team which lost the 1930 Harvard Cup to South Park 13–2.

Sorrell Booke, who played Boss Hogg in the "Dukes of Hazard" TV show was a 1948 Bennett grad.

1961 graduate Michael Bennett, who wrote the Broadway musical, A Chorus Line, dropped his last name, DiFiglia, when he went to Broadway. His middle name is the same as his high school. 

Bob Lanier graduated from Bennett in 1966 Funk superstar Rick James was in the Bennett High School Band.

Fashion model Beverly Johnson was a graduate of Bennett High School.

Actor Reed Hadley was a Bennett grad.