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October 1999

Bob Bennett:
“Strong Families = Strong Communities”

by Craig J. THRALL

Son, brother, friend, husband, father, leader, president, Regent…a few nouns that describe Robert M. Bennett. Many in the community see or know Bob Bennett as the president of the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County. What some people may fail to see or realize is that Bennett fulfills each of the above roles just as he makes it his constant mission to improve a continuum of care for individuals and families throughout Western New York.

THE SON & BROTHER – THE FORMABLE YEARS
It only seems fitting that a man so dedicated and committed to bettering and caring for our community should have been born and raised right here in Buffalo, New York. Born at Children’s Hospital in 1940, Bob was the third of Andrew Gordon Bennett’s and Bernadette Breene Bennett‘s four children, all boys. His father, like Bob’s grandfather before him, worked at the Buffalo Courier Express where each rose to the position of General Manager.

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Robert M. Bennett at 9 months.

Bob Bennett at age 3.

In Kenmore, New York, Bob’s mother and father raised him and his three brothers: Thomas and Richard, seven and four years his senior, respectively and younger brother James. “My parents were going to name me Harry because of the obvious Tom, Dick and Harry,” Bennett recalls. Although the Bennett Boys differed in age and are unique individuals in their own ways, they all share a commonality of having been raised in a caring, disciplined family environment where religion was at the center and ceremonies such as First Communion were more significant than birthdays. Bob’s eight years at Sisters of St. Joseph’s and the high expectations of both parents carved out a path that led to the future successes of Bob and his brothers. “Our parents taught us that religion isn’t something you do on Sunday, it’s who you are,” said Bennett. “It is a constant celebration of the value of goodness and this has had a profound influence on the way I think, behave and act.”

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The Bennett Boys - 1951: (Left to right clockwise) Thomas, Richard, Bob and James.


RISING LEADER
While in high school Bob’s early career aspirations included helping people. “I always had an inclination to use my own skills to benefit others in the teaching/human service profession. I wanted to help people in a way that put me in a position of leadership where I could create a proper influence on an organization or with making people’s lives better.” With a strong, steady upbringing and early aspirations to help lead people to a better quality of life as his foundation, Bob Bennett set out to make a difference.

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Bob Bennett in high school - age 16.

Bob attended the University of Notre Dame where he received his Bachelor’s of English degree in 1962. Bob earned a Master’s Degree in Social Sciences some 15 years later by attending night school at the University of Buffalo.

Bob gained a new understanding of the community, its issues and the problems and challenges it faced while employed as the Director of Urban Affairs at the Greater Buffalo Chamber of Commerce. Bob worked hand in hand with local business leaders, government leaders and many community agencies. “I was exposed to facets of the community that have served me ever since,” recalls Bennett. “My experience at the Chamber has had a very significant influence on the rest of my work life because many of the contacts I made last to this very day.”

The next four years he spent working in local city and county government. Bob was employed on Erie County Executive Tutuska’s staff as the Director of Federal State Aid Programming and worked with the late Buffalo City Mayors Sedita’s and Makowski’s staffs as the Director of Employment and Training in the early 1970s.
       
MAKING A DIFFERENCE WITH THE UNITED WAY
Bob’s next career move brought him in direct contact with the United Way, the future outlet of his work and his chance to do the most good for the community.

In the mid 1970s Bob worked in program development for the Research and Planning Council, which made funding allocation recommendations for the United Way. In 1976 the Research and Planning Council merged with the United Way and a year later Bob became a United Way grant writer.

In the process of doing this fulfilling work at the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, Bob moved to the position of Director of Administration. Here he started laying the groundwork for the direction of the ‘new United Way’ with an organizational strategic plan. After roughly three and half years as the Director of Planning & Allocations, a rewarding position that allowed Bob to work closely with all United Way agency providers, the next step up the proverbial United Way ladder was president. When his predecessor, Bill McFarland, decided it was time to retire, Bob became a candidate. Fifteen years later, the rest is progressive history.

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Coaching Maurine’s softball team, “The Muppets” - 1978.

Over the years many things have changed about the United Way with Bob Bennett at the helm. Agency funding allocations have changed from “entitlement” to a competitive program and results-based distribution system. There has been a successful expansion of the community’s generous Leaders in Giving Program (contributions of $500 or more) and a much greater undertaking of leadership roles such as in the News Neediest Fund and the opportunity to create responses to community needs such as in the Day of Caring. New this year is the United Way’s “Center for Excellence,” which brings together business, academic, agency and community assets to build capacity and provide continuing education and training in the not-for-profit sector.

The one constant with the United Way, before and during Bennett’s time, has been the continual leadership, interest and willingness of very large numbers of volunteers who wish to make a difference on many levels. “I have been blessed with extraordinary volunteer leadership in every aspect of United Way. I think people feel very good about being associated with United Way, not because of me, but because of the whole dedicated team that exists here,” said Bennett. “The United Way has a great role with respect to how care will be provided and how we can create innovative system changes, package coalitions and programs—all so that families get services quicker, more effectively and with very high quality.”

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The Bennett Boys today: (Left to right) Tom, Dick, Bob and Jim.

To Bob Bennett there are several gratifying things about the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County. As the annual campaign closes or a project is completed, Bob notes how happy volunteers from all walks of life are that they succeeded and did something wonderful and measurable for the community. He’s proud of the organization’s mission-driven approach to work in partnership with others to build a stronger community by developing resources that effectively meet human service needs. “Our role in the community, as leaders in programs and initiatives like The News Neediest Fund, Family Support Centers at schools, early childhood development with Success By 6, Kids Voting and as an information broker and trainer, brings me great personal satisfaction,” said Bennett.

The life and schedule of the president of the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County is a hectic, busy one. The one thing that motivates Bob is knowing that what he and the United Way team do makes a difference, even though he will probably never meet most of the people who benefit.

REGENT BENNETT
In March of 1995 Bennett was appointed to a five-year term as one of 16 members to the New York State Board of Regents. “I take satisfaction in believing that our policy will raise opportunity and performance levels of students, which will prepare them to be good citizens able to advance to good jobs and careers,” said Bennett.

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Maurine’s wedding 1994: (Left to right) Andy, Maurine, Audrey, Bob and dog Shamrock.

In many aspects education is faced with the same issues as the United Way: equity, fairness and opportunity. The Board of Regents oversees a wide range of learning, from pre-K to graduate school; all cultural education (including museums, libraries, public television and radio), 38 licensed and regulated professions and vocational services to individuals with disabilities. “There is a tremendous relationship between conditions in families and children’s capacity and opportunity to learn,” said Bennett.

THE PERSONAL SIDE
Bob believes that strong families are the key ingredients to strong communities. For Bob, this begins with his family. He met his wife Audrey at a church fish fry in the summer of 1955 when they were both 15 years old. Married in 1964, the couple has two children – Maurine Elizabeth and Andrew Douglas. “I’ve been very fortunate over the years,” said Bennett. “First and foremost the love and support of my family has provided me with great pride and the perspective of what’s really important: family.”

Reflecting on some of the nouns that describe Robert M. Bennett: son, brother, friend, husband, father, leader, president and Regent, what advice does Bennett have for a young student who hasn’t quite solidified his or her life-long aspirations or decided which path to take in life? “Two things,” said Bennett. “Read as many pieces of literature as possible for the guidance and knowledge they will provide and second, realize that there is no substitute for very hard work and the time spent on task. Don’t look for the easy route, because you’ll either miss something that you could have learned or you won’t achieve what you’re capable of becoming.”

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Here’s to the winners - Golf partners Bob and son Andy
celebrate as brother Jim and son-in-law Fred accept defeat graciously.

 

Craig J. Thrall is the Communications Coordinator at the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County.

 

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