Forum Editorial: Vern Bennett, a public servant’s public servant
It’s no surprise that Vern Bennett is tending to his duties on the Cass County Commission even though he’s in hospice care.
Bennett has been a fixture in local government and civic affairs for almost half a century in Fargo and Cass County. Just a few highlights from his resumé hint at the range of his contributions and dedication.
He was Fargo’s longest-serving superintendent of schools, a 28-year tenure that lasted from 1971 until his retirement from that post in 1999. Starting in 2002, he began serving on the Cass County Commission, a post he continues to hold. Earlier this year, he joined the board of the Fargodome Authority.
It’s hard to imagine a world in which Vern Bennett is no longer an active part. But the sad news broke last week that he is receiving hospice care, having ended kidney dialysis treatments and facing inoperable heart problems.
“When you get to 86, watch out,” he told a reporter, a dry comment about the sudden onset of ill health in advanced age that displays the candor and humor that are hallmarks of his style.
Vern Bennett, longtime Cass County commissioner and former Fargo schools superintendent, is in hospice care
For many reasons, Vern Bennett will be widely missed. He leaves quite a legacy.
Perhaps most obviously, his almost three decades at the helm of Fargo Public Schools saw significant enrollment growth and expansion. New buildings during that time include Carl Ben Eielson Middle School, Discovery Middle School and Centennial Elementary School.
Bennett Elementary School, which opened after he retired, was named in his honor.
Trollwood Performing Arts School, a dramatic arts program of Fargo Public Schools, simply wouldn’t exist without the nurturing support Bennett gave it when the innovative program launched in 1978.
The idea sounded crazy — a school-sponsored program based at a city park? — and required significant fundraising to transform the dilapidated buildings of what once had been the Cass County poor farm into a performing arts center.
Trollwood, which has been a cultural highlight of Fargo-Moorhead summers for decades, today is housed at Bluestem Center for the Arts in south Moorhead, something that wouldn’t have been possible without Bennett’s strong support in the crucial early years.
Less obviously — but a universal point made by those who worked on his administrative team at Fargo Public Schools — was Bennett’s supportive and collaborative management style. He saw his job as providing the tools his people needed, with some guidance where needed.
He was more of a mentor than a boss, helping to cultivate generations of leaders whose contributions will continue even after he’s gone.
Trollwood was emblematic of his philosophy, which was to provide well-rounded educational opportunities for all children to enable them thrive and develop, in academics, athletics and the arts.
As a county commissioner, Bennett has been a voice for fiscal prudence but also for doing more to help those who are in need. He’s also been a vocal proponent of providing permanent flood protection for the metro area.
His has been a life well lived, devoted to service on behalf of his community. We wish Vern Bennett well in his remaining days. Our thoughts are with him and his family.
His many and varied contributions will be long remembered.