Henry Garland Bennett (1886–1951)
Henry Garland Bennett was an Arkansas-born educator who played a transformative role in the development of the state of Oklahoma’s system of higher education. In addition, in his final years, he was appointed to help direct the U.S. State Department’s Point Four Program. He served from 1950 until his sudden death in a plane crash in December 1951.
Henry G. Bennett was born on December 14, 1886, in Nevada County. The son of the Reverend Thomas Jefferson Bennett and Mary Elizabeth Bright Bennett, he had three sisters. The family moved from Arkansas to Texas before Bennett’s first birthday but settled in Arkadelphia (Clark County) before he started school. It was there that he grew up and received his early education.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from Ouachita Baptist College (now Ouachita Baptist University) in 1907. His first teaching job was at a business college in Texarkana (Miller County). However, he soon quit that job, becoming a textbook salesman. In 1908, Bennett accepted a teaching job in Boswell, Oklahoma. His career quickly advanced as he entered the administrative ranks of the education world, becoming superintendent of schools in Hugo, Oklahoma, a post he held until 1919. He then assumed the presidency of Southeastern Normal School (now Southeastern Oklahoma State University), where he served from 1919 to 1928.
Bennett married Vera Pearl Connell in January 1913; they had five children.
At Southeastern, he oversaw the transition of the school from a normal (teacher-training) school into a state-run teachers’ college. During his years at the school, the school’s faculty was upgraded, and a campus that had consisted of only a main building and the president’s house grew to include four buildings dedicated to the educational program, as well as a gymnasium and a library. The enrollment at Southeastern tripled during his tenure. He also continued his own education, earning an MA from the University of Oklahoma in 1924 and a PhD from Columbia University a few years later.
His work at Southeastern established Bennett as a leader in higher education in Oklahoma. In 1928, he became president of Oklahoma A&M University (now Oklahoma State University). Heading the university from 1928 to 1951, Bennett played a central role in the growth and development of the state’s higher education system.
Upon taking the helm at Oklahoma A&M, Bennett developed a comprehensive twenty-five-year plan that sought to achieve a full-scale transformation of the college. By 1951, the campus featured an array of new and renovated buildings—including a student union that continues to serve as the heart of the campus in the twenty-first century—a process that cost over $50 million. Meanwhile, under his leadership, the school’s enrollment grew from less than 4,000 students to more than 12,000. It also became one of the most highly regarded agricultural and mechanical schools in the United States. The university’s innovative program in soil conservation was adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while the Fire Training School earned a reputation as the “West Point of Fire Training.” Too, Oklahoma A&M was chosen by the federal government to provide military and defense programs to over 40,000 participants, and, by the end of Bennett’s tenure, the university was granting doctoral degrees in selected areas.
Recognizing the changed landscape of the postwar world, the United States undertook its first formalized plan for international economic development. In 1950, President Harry Truman appointed Bennett to the office of assistant secretary of state charged with directing the Point Four Program, the nation’s first formal program in foreign aid. Taking a leave of absence from Oklahoma A&M to accept the appointment, Bennett was in his second year as the program’s technical cooperation administrator when, traveling to Iran in the course of an inspection tour, he and his wife died in plane crash near Tehran on December 22, 1951.
Bennett and his wife are buried in Highland Cemetery in Durant, Oklahoma.
For additional information:
Chapman, Berlin. B. “Dr. Henry G. Bennett as I Knew Him.” Chronicles of Oklahoma 33, no. 2 (1955): 159–168.
“Dr. Henry Bennett, Aggie Educator, Killed in Crash.” Sooner Magazine (January 1952): 10–11. Online at https://digital.libraries.ou.edu/sooner/articles/p10-11_1952v24n5_OCR.pdf (accessed January 24, 2016).
William H. Pruden III
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