H. Curtis Bennett Jr. was born to missionaries in China in 1921, grew up in a small town north of Albany, and taught in colleges and universities across the United States before moving to Europe more than 30 years ago and settling in Barcelona, Spain.
Even from that distance, there were two places “back home” that he never forgot: Harvard University and Buffalo.
He showed it in a million ways.
When Bennett died on March 22 in Barcelona, he left $1 million to Roswell Park Cancer Institute. He was even more generous to Harvard, providing more than $5 million to fund scholarships “for children of impecunious teachers and ministers” – meaning young people, who, like him, did not have wealthy parents.
He will be remembered for his scholarship, for his worldliness and for his thrift.
Bennett did not inherit money and never held a high-paying job. His career was that of an itinerant academic, teaching classics at Texas, Stanford, Emory, Yale and Tufts universities, and at the University of Buffalo. He also worked for a few years as an editorial writer at the Baltimore Sun and The Buffalo Evening News in the early 1960s, before he retired and moved to Europe, where he immersed himself in “independent study” of religion and classical writing, particularly the works of the ancient Greek poet Pindar.
He was, in a word, “parsimonious,” according to his college classmate and lifelong friend Richard “Rit” Moot of Buffalo.
“He never owned a car. He never owned a house. He never had any children to educate,” Moot said. “What he didn’t spend he saved and invested in the stock market.”
Moot stayed in touch with Bennett and was one of the few that Bennett counted among his close friends. Bennett lived in the city for only about four years, arriving after the deaths of his parents in the late 1950s and living with his sister, Theda Elizabeth Bennett, who taught biology at Buffalo State College and was a researcher at Roswell Park Cancer Institute for more than 10 years. Then, Theda Bennett was diagnosed with cancer herself and was treated at Roswell before her death in 1972 at age 48. As evidenced in his personal writing, her brother never stopped missing her.
She also is not forgotten at Roswell. Dr. Edwin Mirand, dean emeritus of Roswell Park Cancer Institute, was a colleague of Theda Bennett and also a close family friend.
“Having known Dr. Bennett for more than five decades, he shared with me his intention of leaving this gift for Roswell Park Cancer Institute upon his passing,” Mirand said. “He knew the sense of family and commitment to the mission of preventing, understanding and finding a cure for cancer at Roswell Park (his sister) held so dear throughout her professional and personal life.”
Cindy Eller, executive director of the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation, added, “All of us at Roswell Park are incredibly grateful and proud that Dr. Bennett chose to honor his sister by arranging for this legacy gift. It is so wonderful that Dr. Bennett recognized the Roswell staff as an extension of his sister Theda’s family. Theda’s legacy continues to be an inspirational part of the Roswell staff family.”
Just as Roswell Park was Theda Bennett’s family, Harvard was her brother’s. He earned three degrees there, his bachelor’s in 1942 and then, after wartime service, his master’s and his doctorate.
And it began with a scholarship.
In 1938, Howard Curtis Bennett Jr., a clergyman’s son and graduate of Glens Falls Academy, was accepted to Harvard and received a scholarship so he could attend. He studied classics, was accepted into Phi Beta Kappa, took part in student leadership and wanted to be a writer.
After graduating in 1942, however, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, working in the Signal Corps as a Japanese translator and serving in Japan after the war. Then, thanks to another award, the Charles Haven Goodwin Scholarship, he was able to resume his studies, and by 1954 had earned his doctorate.
“When he first came to me (about 20 years ago) and said he wanted to give $1 million to Harvard, I thought it was a joke,” Moot said, recalling Bennett’s initial gift to the university. “Then he showed me his securities and I knew he wasn’t joking.”
The scholarships, for the full four years, will go to students recommended by the Harvard Club of Western New York and other upstate Harvard clubs.
It is no wonder Moot was surprised by the gift. Material goods apparently meant nothing to Bennett, who placed much higher value on good conversation and intellectual stimulation. While in his 80s, he began a blog, drcurtisbennett.com, where he presented his research and reflected on his long life. His style was academic and opinionated, and he almost never mentioned money.
Instead, he wrote about the fickleness of friends and his disappointment in not finding even a small print audience for his academic work – a cruel fate for a man described by friends as brilliant. He published one book, “God as Form,” through the SUNY Press in 1976.
As for his family, he mentions his sister Dorothea briefly, but it is Theda’s early death that he writes about most.
As he grew older, and especially after his cancer diagnosis in 2010, Bennett examined even more closely his feelings about religion. A sense of his personality comes through in something he wrote in November 2010 when Pope Benedict was visiting Barcelona.
First, he recalls hearing Pope Pius XII when he lived in Rome in the 1950s: “...three times listening in the Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square) to Pacelli (family name of Pope Pius XII) from that church’s front balcony recite the Easter blessing Urbi et Orbi, or standing five hours, chained in a crowd to hear him make the Assumption of the Virgin Church dogma, 1 Nov. 1950.”
And then, in 2010: “By contrast: Saturday night we could have seen Ratzinger (Pope Benedict) from the balcony of the bishop´s palace (in Barcelona), across the street from where we live bless the devout ... We passed it up for an hour´s walk and late food shopping.... The magic had vanished in this fifty-sixty year interval.”
He also felt the loss of friends who had moved or died: “We see few, converse with fewer, and never with answering intellect, though we find that now unnecessary, while still bereft of ordinary company. There’s the old bachelor, living alone... for me everyone of them has vanished, never a word, card or visit when passing through. ... The conclusion I drew: how important (are) memory scraps of the most ordinary people, how I grasped them to make up the absence of human contact, a living cadaver at 89.”
Bennett did take comfort in the continued connections with his friends in Buffalo – Moot and Mirand – and also with the knowledge that his work will survive him. According to Christopher T. Greene, his attorney here, Harvard has agreed to accept Bennett’s papers and will make every effort to have them published.