The mortal remains of the most Honorable Charles E. Bennett, M.C. were interred in Arlington National Cemetery following his death in 2003. This resting place of honor for him among our nation’s heroes is especially appropriate. Not only did he earn that privilege through physical courage under fire in combat, but he earned all the honor and respect we can give him by his decades of arduous, stressful and demanding national service, all the more so because he performed that service despite daunting physical disability.
In all his many years as a Congressman representing Florida’s northeast and as Dean and Chairman of Florida’s Congressional Delegation, Charlie Bennett never gave less than his best. He fulfilled his duties with dignity, honor and the strongest sense of personal integrity I have ever seen. His spirit was indomitable; his commitment to his country and his constituents, total.
U.S. Army Captain Charlie Bennett earned the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest combat decoration for bravery, during WW II guerilla operations in the Philippines. But his relentless courage in confronting every day the ravages of the poliomyelitis he contracted in the Philippine jungles was truly awe inspiring and humbling to all those around him.
Over the years he was able to progress from a wheel chair to crutches to two canes and then, finally, one cane. He considered that great progress—and it was. It also came after great efforts on his part to strengthen his wasted legs and to learn to use his cumbersome, painful braces to support his body. Several times a day when Congress was in session, he had to make the long trip from his Rayburn HOB office over to “The Floor” of the House of Representatives in the Capitol Building itself. It was slow and painful, but he did it thousands of times during his many years in office.
Since he had been a Member of Congress since 1949, Charles E. Bennett was all I had ever known as the Congressman from the Third District of Florida.
My first personal association with him began in 1955.
A messenger from the Principal’s office found me during a class at Andrew Jackson High School in October 1955. After a whispered conversation with the teacher, he handed her an envelope.
After looking at it, her eyes then roved around the room until, to my surprise, they locked on mine. Clearly, something in the envelope concerned me. I searched her look to determine whatever I could about the contents.
None of us in the class had ever gotten a personal letter delivered to the addressee at the school–while we were in class.
I had not the slightest idea who might have written that letter or what might be inside. Frankly, my knees were a little less sure of themselves than usual as I headed up the row of desks to retrieve the letter—“my” letter.
All eyes in the class followed me up the aisle, most of them with some initial sympathy, since how could such a development bring good news.
Arriving at her desk several days later…it seemed…I reached for the envelope, even as I looked to her face for clues.
As she handed me the crisp, white No. 10 business envelope with the glassine insert that allowed the addressee’s name to be seen by the post office, she nodded her head as if she were saying “Huh,” with a positive sound in her throat, then out loud she said, softly, “Congressman Bennett…for you.”
I was fifteen years old at the time, a good student and all that, very active in school organizations and events. But in the seconds it took for me to return to my seat with the mysterious envelope in my sweaty hand—trying not to trip over some errant foot since all eyes were still riveted on me—I could not think of a single reason why our Congressman, “Charlie” Bennett, already in office since 1949, would be writing me.
I carefully opened the envelope, trying not to do more damage than was necessary to the very handsome official stationery of the Congress of These United States.
The contents included a brief note on the Federal eagle letterhead that started out, “Dear Tracy, Congratulations from one Eagle Scout to another,” and went on to say some very thoughtful things about achieving the highest rank in the Scouting program.
It was the first of many letters and communications from Charlie Bennett that I was to receive. However, I had no idea that many years later that he would ask me to serve as his Administrative Assistant, or Chief of Staff.
While I was a student at Jackson High School, Bennett attempted to secure an appointment for me at Annapolis as a Midshipman. He was thwarted by the stringent Navy vision requirements. I was simply too nearsighted to be a Midshipman. Of course, four years later when I graduated from the University of Florida, the Navy was very willing to waive the vision requirements and send me off to the OCS at Newport, RI.
He also offered me a part-time position as an Intern in his office. However, the pay was minimal and the Washington living expenses were beyond my slim budget at the time.
Well, I though, there goes my opportunity to get some experience in a Congressional Office.
Little did I know what lay ahead.