Charles E. Bennett’s special reverence for Florida leaves a treasure trove of written history and historic landmarks
by Emily Lisska
Charlie Bennett was a living legend, known and beloved by a diverse citizenry. His special reverence for North Florida leaves a treasure trove of land, written history and historic landmarks. With his death, the history community has lost a cherished friend. His accomplishments were so numerous and his own story so intriguing, no doubt someone will step forward to pen the life of this extraordinary Floridian.
A week before Charlie’s death, his daughter Cindy Bennett phoned to ask if the Historical Society might have an available copy (for her family) of the televised Jacksonville History Show that had recently aired on Cable’s Comcast Channel 29, during August. Appearing on the show were long-time Bennett family friend Doug Milne, former Bennett aide Senator Steve Wise and Property Appraiser Jim Overton, who in recent years videotaped hours of conversation with the former Congressman.
The show’s topic was former Congressman Charles E. Bennett, and it was my job to guide the discussion in the allotted time of 30 minutes, which I knew was woefully inadequate to approach his life and accomplishments.
Charlie was too ill to participate in the show; his health had been extremely fragile for more than a year. But through the videotapes—a project fittingly originated three years ago by the National Park Service— Charlie shared memories of his life.
The Jacksonville Historical Society now includes in its archives eight hours of oral history with the former Congressman. These tapes are a treasure, as was Charlie.
As scores of others, I have my own memories of Charlie. In recent times, I treasure that the Congressman spent both his 90th and 91st birthdays with the Jacksonville Historical Society; on both occasions he graciously agreed to our request to sign books and meet and greet the public.
Several years ago when I ran a request for Merrill House funding in this newsletter, Charlie Bennett was the very first person to respond. Indeed, Charlie was the first donor to the Merrill House restoration project.
Of course, his contributions to local history preservation projects are legendary and were part of his life for more than half a century; his beloved Ft. Caroline and the Timucuan Preserve were his special gifts to Florida and the nation. The Congressman’s initial legislation during his 44 years in Congress secured this treasure. Among his other gifts to the history community were the restoration of Old St. Luke’s Hospital and his acquisition of the famed Andrew Jackson statue, a replica of the very statue across from the White House.
He authored nine books relating to the history of North Florida. He was the consummate historian and scholar, yet presented his material in a readable fashion; Mr. Bennett knew the magnificence of the North Florida story and he skillfully shared that passion through his talent for research, writing and storytelling. His contributions of original research and his additions to the body of knowledge on the area’s history are staggering. And with each publication, profits were gifted to the National Park Service or an organization in need.
He is directly responsible for igniting the love for local history in legions; through his prolific writing he reminded us again and again of the incomparable story of this place we call home.
While Charlie Bennett delivered in a big way, he never forgot how little things counted. Many of us cherish the notes and the letters he was so good at writing.
Appropriately, Charlie Bennett stands as the sole recipient of the Jacksonville Historical Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He recorded our history, he preserved our history, and to North Florida’s great fortune, he is our history.