Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Portrait of an Artist

In my professor role, many of my students look up to me (rightly or wrongly) as a teacher, mentor, advisor, confidante, and friend.  I'm not always comfortable being put in that position, but have grown to enjoy that role as I've gotten older and (and perhaps although highly debatable) wiser.  Two weeks ago, I lost my Dad, who had played all of those roles (plus many more) for me.  I've spent the past two weeks thinking about my Dad, sharing stories, digging through his office, and reading notes from friends and colleagues letting us know how much he meant to each of them.

Philip Bennet was an incredible man.  My parents had been married for over 58 years at the time of his sudden passing on the 3rd of July.  He had two amazing careers, spending 40 years at the IRS, before becoming an accomplished artist in his last 20 years.

Me and Dad on a snowy winter day (late 1970's?)

When I was younger, I often wondered why my Dad stayed in a largely unappreciated role with the government, when he could have moved to a lucrative law firm or corporate tax position.  Having graduated from Wharton, I'm sure I was trained to think in terms of optimizing financial outcomes.  However, over the years, I realized he was doing work that challenged him, was living life on his own terms and was very comfortable with who he was.  This truly struck home when my brother connected with a close colleague of my dad's, who he had worked with at a couple of different times during his career" In his condolence note, he wrote:

"When I returned in the 1980's as Commissioner, I found to my delight that your father had not changed but only had become more experienced and wiser.  The Commissioner's office can be a lonely one.  But with the assistance of folks like your father, I had a wonderful time while I was there.  The IRS itself can often be a thankless place to work because if the IRS and its employees do their jobs well, about the most they can hope for is respect and once in a long while, trust.  Your father was someone whom I respected and trusted the most.

His innate goodness and desire to do the right thing and find good solutions to tough problems were his hallmarks.  He is the type of person I think of when I recall how good the folks of the IRS were and are.  He was the consummate professional, and I truly believe our country is better for his service."

Upon retiring from the IRS, he embarked on a second career as an artist.  He had dabbled in art in high school and as he neared retirement, he began sketching and creating watercolors on summer vacations to Maine.  However, rather than continuing as a hobby, he took classes at the local junior college and began experimenting with different mediums and styles.  He continued painting landscapes but his focus soon shifted to abstract art and printmaking. He had a number of exhibits including a 70-year retrospective in 2012 that covered his work from 1942 - 2012 (including a watercolor painted at age 12, a self portrait in oil painted at age 13, and over 25 other works in pastel, acrylics, watercolor, collage and monotype.)  Below is a sample work titled Organic, a watercolor monotype from 2008 that was part of a solo exhibit at the Old Print Gallery in Washington, DC in 2014 and an excerpt from a review of that show by the Washington Post.

Organic by Philip Bennet (2008)

"'Kaleidoscope,' Philip Bennet’s solo show at the Old Print Gallery, takes its name from one of the artist’s monotypes. Working most often with oil-based inks, Bennet makes one-of-a-kind prints whose vivid colors, layered patterns and sheer energy recall 1950s abstract expressionism. They don’t literally multiply and invert mirrored forms the way a kaleidoscope does. The local artist’s style is freer and more fluid, especially in the handful of prints and paintings that use water-based rather than oil pigments."
He clearly made full use of his analytical left brain and creative right brain. He was a rare man and will be missed by many more than his family.

Toasting his grandchildren (10/2014)

For anyone who has been to a Bennet family milestone event, you may recognize the bottle of Haag and Haag Scotch that my Dad used to toast my niece and nephew at their B'nai Mitzvah last October. My grandfather toasted my Dad with this same bottle at his Bar Mitzvah in 1943. Other occasions included my parent's wedding (1958), my brother's bar mitzvah (1973), my bar mitzvah (1976), my sister's bat mitzvah (1980), my brother's wedding (1990), my wedding (1990), and my sister's wedding (2000) along with other bar and bat mitzvah's of his grandchildren.  We celebrated Dad's life last Friday and decided it was time to finally polish off the bottle. My brother, sister and I together toasted our Dad one last time for being an incredible father and the amazing 86 year life he lived.

One final toast to Dad

Below are the remarks I made to honor Dad at the memorial.

Philip Eugene Bennet
1/6/30 – 7/3/16

How you be?

I don’t know how many times I received that greeting from my Dad but wish I could hear it once more.  That was his standard greeting.  Not the perfunctory and more formal “How are you” but “How you be”.  It was always delivered with a smile and often with a pat on the back and sometimes a hearty laugh.  I think it wasn’t so much a greeting, but a question that he really wanted to know.  He cared.  He was a listener.  He wanted to know what was going on in your life. He wanted to help make everyone else feel as good and happy as him.

How you be?

I’d tell him, “Dad, I’m good but I really miss you.  You wouldn’t believe who’s here! But I’m so glad I got to know you over the past 53 years.  I’m grateful for everything you gave me and that I was lucky enough to inherit a few things from you: your good looks (obviously), your dry sense of humor and your dexterity with the tennis racket”

How you be?

I’ve spent the past two weeks going through Dad’s office and reading condolence notes from friends and colleagues.  Some things that came through were his professionalism, kindness, intellect, inquisitiveness and of course, sense of humor.   People remembered Dad. He was a man who made an incredible impact on so many people - those who knew him for decades and those he only met once.

Going through the office has been a bit of an archaeological dig.  But he left some great clues – for my nieces and nephews, the game I played was luddite version of Pokemon Go.  The starting point was a binder he left labeled “For AB in event of PEB demise” One note in the binder indicated information on his Series I bonds could be found in the top file drawer in a manila folder ¾ of the way back that contained a sheet with dates in reverse chronological order.  In addition to the practical financial information, I found a few other gems.  My dad was a bit of a packrat (something else I managed to inherit). In with a pile of resumes and cover letters (last updated in 1962) was a reference letter dated August 7th 1956.  Lt Colonel Wilner N.J. Nelson wrote “Private First Class Bennet is extremely personable and possesses a lively sense of humor. “  I always wondered if our sense of humor would be appreciated in the military and seems like Dad was able to get away with it.

My dad was probably the last person not filing a 1040EZ to complete his tax return by hand.  If you happened to come by the house between the months of February and April, you’d be sure to see various tax forms spread out across the kitchen or dining room table.  He was not about to trust his taxes to a CPA or even worse, some computer program called TurboTax.  In flipping through the 2015 tax return I noted separate Schedule C’s (profit or loss from business for those of you not familiar with the IRS form numbering and lettering schema) for both Mom and Dad’s art businesses.  Dad had $975 in Gross Receipts in 2015, while Mom unfortunately didn’t sell anything last year.  However, on the schedule C for my Mom next to the $0 gross receipts line, Dad wrote by hand “No paintings sold in 2015 even through she had a well received solo show and exhibit”.  He wanted to make sure someone at the IRS knew that 2015 was an anomaly and to expect bigger numbers in 2016.  He was so proud of Mom!

Being here at Edgemoor brings back so many memories of my childhood.  I practically lived here in the summer as a kid and would often tag along with Dad after he returned from work on the off chance a doubles partner didn’t show.  Tennis was such a big part of Dad’s life and my childhood.  Which brings me to another artifact uncovered on my dig.

In his office proudly displayed was this trophy.  It was rather dusty and the racket broke off long ago.  You can’t read this but it is the 3rd place trophy from the 1973 Parent Child Edgemoor Club Championship.  I was 10 at the time and still remember how happy we both were at knocking off teams with kids 4, 5, and 6 years older.  I think he was prouder of that bronze medal than the 1st place trophies he won on his own.

Tennis was such a big part of dad’s life.  I just love that picture from the slideshow of Dad proudly holding his Wilson T2000 racket with those young guns.  The only people that could hit that damn thing were Jimmy Connors and Philip Bennet. I can picture him holding that racket and hitting one of those wicked backhand slices down the line as he races to the net for a put-away volley.

One of my favorite tennis quotes is:

The depressing thing about tennis is that no matter how good I get, I’ll never be as good as a wall.  

Taken literally, I don’t know anyone who has ever taken a set from the backboard.  Taken figuratively, it means a lot when I think about Dad’s life.  It is natural to compare yourself against your peers.  I don’t recall my dad ever getting down or showing signs of envy.  He was very happy in his own (very large) shoes.  In looking through his correspondence, he had myriad opportunities to take lucrative law firm or corporate tax roles after his initial commitment to the IRS.  Many of his colleagues definitely went that route but he knew he was happy and challenged where he was.

Another tennis metaphor I like is:

"Sometimes it pays to stay at the baseline. There is no place like home. "

For my Dad, Home was so many places. Home was 5912 Kirby Road in Bethesda, the only home my parents ever owned. Home was 65 E. 96th Street in Manhattan, where he grew up with my Nana Lil, Papa Charlie and Aunt Carol  and slept in the dining room of a very small apartment.. Home was Edgemoor. Home was the Old Print Gallery.  Home was Mt Dessert Island in Maine.  Home was wherever he was with his beloved wife and friends.

One final tennis story.  About a dozen years ago, we received an email from dad letting us know that his defibrillator kicked in during a tennis match.  Once he assured me his cardiologist said everything was good, I had one more question for him.  I wanted to know how the much was going at the time he had to quit:

“Steve.  Enjoyed your email.  Tim Coss and I won a very hard first set and were down 3-love in the 2nd when I held serve by angling off a drop shot very close to the net and hitting a passing shot between both opponents at the net on the final point of the game.  That felt really good until I was jolted by the defibrillator.  Love Dad”

I just picked up a racket a couple of months ago after giving up the game 25 years ago.. I remember telling him I had a surprise for him after they returned from their Sicily trip in May. I told him of my return to the courts and could hear how happy he was.  He also had to give some fatherly advice – “Make sure you stretch before you play”

I was really looking forward to playing some short court doubles with Dad when they visited later this month. Mom, I still have that court reserved. Will you join me?

“How you be?"


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