Students benefitted from Bennett’s incredible mind
Emeritus Professor Dr. Les Anderson ’55 remembers sitting in an advanced mathematics class on the top floor of Andrews Hall early Monday morning waiting for the professor to arrive.
Though it was nearing 8:30 a.m.—a full 30 minutes past the time it was supposed to start—every student remained in his or her seat.
“We knew better than to leave because at any moment Professor Bennett could walk in,” Anderson says. “We knew if he walked in, he wouldn’t miss a beat. He’d step up to the board and begin writing and teaching.”
Some weekends, as many of his students knew, Professor Theodore “Ted” Bennett participated in major national contract bridge tournaments that were held out of town. On rare occasions, this would lead to class starting late. But Bennett’s reputation for being a challenging instructor kept his students from taking the chance of missing out on any part of his lectures.
Bennett was hired in 1937 to teach in the Mathematics Department. He had earned his undergraduate degree from Cornell University and his advanced degrees from the University of Illinois. He was a National Research Council Fellow at Princeton University. Prior to arriving at Marietta, he worked in Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study at the same time as another great mind—Professor Albert Einstein. Despite rumors, Einstein and Bennett never worked in the same office or on the same projects, though the two exchanged pleasantries in the hallways.
“Professor Bennett had an incredible mind,” Anderson says, recalling that Bennett taught entire classes without using notes. On more than a few occasions, he would ask his students to turn to a specific page in their textbooks and cross out sections that were erroneous. Anderson, who earned a doctorate in Physics from Penn State University and taught for many decades at Marietta College, says he truly respected Bennett because his former professor was so adept in his teaching as well as extremely knowledgeable in the field of mathematics.
Bennett was named the head of the Mathematics Department in 1943 and served in that capacity until 1967. One of his former students, Dr. Jim Murtha ’60, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics, recalls his former professor and colleague fondly.
“I have a lot of strong, positive feelings about Ted,” Murtha says. When Bennett stepped down from serving as a department chair, Murtha was asked to lead. Murtha recalls Bennett staying with the department to serve as a source of support for the then-28-year-old department chair and then gradually stepping aside so Murtha take over.
“Ted spoke fondly of Oswald Veblen, a mathematician who helped found the Institute for Advanced Study, a famous geometer and topologist in his own right and nephew of the more famous Thorstein Veblen,” Murtha says. “Veblen was supportive of the many post-doctoral fellows like Bennett, who were invited to spend a year or two in the idyllic atmosphere and in the presence of great mathematicians and physicists.”
Murtha recalls one of the stories that Bennett told him of his days at Cornell. “Ted was studying music and he had a roommate who he didn’t particularly like. His roommate was taking a math class and complained about how difficult it was. Ted took that same math class out of spite, did very well in it, just to show his roommate it wasn’t really that hard for him—and he ended up getting a degree in mathematics.”
As a professor, Bennett would sometimes hit a yardstick atop surfaces in the classroom when he wanted to emphasize a point, or throw chalk or erasers at inattentive students. Murtha remembers the man who was one of the toughest professor he had ever had but who also had a tremendous impact on his life.
Bennett was an avid duplicate bridge player, impatient with opponents and often showing his hand with several cards left to play, explaining how the rest of the game would unfold. He was a regular at the old Wakefield Hotel’s weekly game and encouraged students to take up the game. Bridge was a popular activity at Marietta College in the 50’s when Murtha was a student and Bennett would sometimes sit in a game at “the Pit”, a student hangout on campus. “He played with the same vigor and intensity that he taught, slapping cards on the table, shuffling the deck quickly to deal the next hand,” Murtha says. “One of the better players, Bill, had trouble getting up for early classes. Although Ted might make a passing comment about the absences, he was happy to have Bill as a partner.”
“And he had talents well beyond mathematics,” Anderson says. In addition to studying mathematics, Bennett also studied piano at the Eastman School of Music and he studied piano, organ and music theory at Cornell. For many years, he was the accompanist for Handel’s Messiah and other community performances.
He also helped with the College’s debate team. In Vernon “Dan” McGrew’s book, …In the Various Branches of Useful Knowledge, the author notes that Bennett was one of the professors who helped prepare soldiers in the Army Air Corps Program on campus during World War II. Anderson recalls Bennett and other professors pressing for women’s rights to assist during wartime, and the faculty assisted in some of their training.
“The actual number of (Marietta College) alumnae in uniforms of the various services’ auxiliaries is not known,” McGrew writes. “There were 15 women enlistees by spring 1943, and the total probably reached two dozen. Their assignments included nursing, map reading and general service in stations all over the country.”
It was during the war years that Bennett met and married his wife, the former Betty Scott, who taught women’s physical education at Marietta from 1941 until 1978.
Their wedding was definitely a Marietta College affair, as described in the local newspaper. Then-President Draper Talman Schoonover walked the bride down the aisle, Music Professor Jerry Hamilton served as best man and his wife, Dallas Sisk Hamilton, was the matron of honor.
Mrs. Bennett was a champion of promoting support for women’s athletics for many years. She died in 1978, still working at the College.
Professor Bennett continued to teach until the spring of 1970. He died on March 10, 1976 at the age of 76. Coincidentally, he was in New York to attend his brother’s funeral when he died.
“In an academic discipline more known for just that—discipline—than for fun, he found things to chuckle about,” McGrew writes. “Mostly, though, he enjoyed playing the organ and piano at numberless (Marietta College) commencements, convocations and the like. That passion was shared with bridge games.”