Tom Bennett honored – counselor for 40 years

Tom Bennett pauses for the applause to die down after he addressed the crowd, which included his wife, Carol Whitmarsh, at right. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

On a raw and windy day last month, dozens of clients, colleagues, family and friends gathered outside at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) to honor and celebrate Tom Bennett’s 40 years of service to the agency. It was the day before Veterans Day, a fitting time to honor a veteran who has devoted much of his energy as a mental health counselor to helping fellow Islanders who have served in the military.

As part of the ceremony, a sculpture by Barney Zeitz was dedicated in Mr. Bennett’s honor. A dramatic, challenging construction, the piece is set on a pedestal in a grassy area between the MVCS administration building and the Island Counseling Center, which was known as the Mental Health Center. On its base, which suggests both a plow and a fish hook, Mr. Zeitz inscribed, “This memorial represents the healing spirit of all those affected by the trauma of war.”

For Tom Bennett, the journey from self-described insulated local kid to someone who supports and comforts people from every imaginable background has had some interesting twists and turns. Born into the Drake clan on Chappaquiddick in 1945, Mr. Bennett moved to Edgartown when he was three. He attended the Edgartown School, followed by the regional high school, from which he graduated in 1964. His plan was to go to Cape Cod Community College.

“I spent a few months working at the turkey farm on the Vineyard Haven Road, made some money, but not enough to support myself and go back to school, so I ended up joining the Air Force,” he said in an interview late last month. “I had originally gone up with a whole bunch of the guys to take my physical and had been approved for the Army, and they all went off in September — Tony da Rosa, Bobby Tankard, John Bunker, Lenny Donaroma, Ashley DePriest. I went in the Air Force in ’65 for a four-year stint. I didn’t even know much about Vietnam at the time.”

Sent to Gunther Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, for basic training for the Medical Corps, Mr. Bennett got a cram course in the realities of mid-century America far from Martha’s Vineyard. “I remember seeing the Confederate flag flying higher than the American flag at the capitol. I remember the black and white drinking fountains, and going into the wrong cafeteria, where they wouldn’t serve me, and I didn’t know why. That was an eye-opener for an Island kid. It was the first time I realized that there were things wrong in this country.”

Mr. Bennett was assigned to a hospital at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., for on-the-job training in several departments. “One was air evac (Aeromedical Evacuation) where I did two or three months, right at the time when the war started to heat up in ’65, with the Ia Drang Valley — the first big battle.

“The guys started coming in, and I was a litter bearer. That was my first real connection to guys that were wounded. I was 19 years old, and I was just opening my eyes to the fact that there was a war going on.”

War close-up

Young men everywhere were aware of the war during those years, and too many of them were too close to it.

Or, as Gregory Spain wrote in a poem he delivered at the ceremony honoring Mr. Bennett, “He didn’t go to Vietnam. Vietnam came to him.” Mr. Spain was in the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam, and since 1999 he has been part of the veterans group facilitated by Mr. Bennett at MVCS.

Mr. Bennett stayed at Andrews for two and a half years, almost all of it in the acute care unit. “I got to know this pilot, Major Klein. He was a great guy who’d gotten shot up pretty bad, and we talked a lot about the world and the meaning of life. I grew up fast.”

With growth came confusion, however. Outside the hospital, the country was out of focus. “There was all this stuff going on, with the young people and the hippie movement challenging everything. ‘Course, I’m doing that too, and so are the GIs: what the hell are we doing?”

Mr. Bennett spent the last 18 months of his tour in Turkey. “It was a great experience. I ended up being an independent duty medic for six months in Samsun, Turkey, up by the Black Sea. There were 500 guys, me and this other medic, and a Turkish doctor from the town. They called me “Doc.”

Discharged in January, 1969, Mr. Bennett returned to the Island, which hadn’t changed much. It took some getting used to, being home. “I had seen so much, and I was used to being on call 24/7. And all of a sudden you don’t have an identity. It was the first time in history that returning soldiers were not welcomed, which is one of the reasons we have so many Vietnam veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

At loose ends and with no work prospects, Mr. Bennett killed time until summer, when he got a job. Come fall, unemployment was once again his lot, so he decided to go to Europe with Todd Bassett, a pal from Edgartown who had served in Vietnam. “We wanted to travel, live on the beach, and just get away from it all,” he said.

“We went to Morocco, and I had all these medical supplies with me. We were in Diabet, south of Marrakesh, with all these hippies from all over the world. And one day this guy Gagi brings his son to me with a bee sting that had gotten infected, and he thought he was going to die, because they die from these infections in those little villages. So I cleaned him up, and put some Bacitracin on it, wrapped it up, and the next day he comes up and he’s almost healed. The next morning I wake up and there’s a line outside the door with guys with cuts and things. So Todd would assist me and we had a little dispensary for a couple months, until we ran out of money.”

En route to Copenhagen, where they’d been promised work, Mr. Bennett came down with hepatitis in Amsterdam from eating the food in Morocco. He spent more than three weeks in an isolation ward in a hospital. “I had a lot of time to think, and I decided to go home and to something constructive with my life.”

Something constructive

Soon after he returned, he ran into David Smith, a counselor at MVCS who had been Mr. Bennett’s minister when he was a boy. It was 1970 and MVCS was opening Summer Project, which offered counseling and a hotline to young people who appeared on the Island from all over the country, many of them broke, troubled, or alienated.

Hired by the late Milton Mazer, a psychiatrist who ran the Mental Health Center, Mr. Bennett ran the Hotline. “One summer we had 70 volunteers,” he said. “Dr. [Russell] Hoxsie had a medical clinic for them, and through C.E.T.A. we got some of them jobs.”

Mr. Bennett worked at Project for four years, two years under Mr. Smith and two as director. He also ran the Youth Center during the winter. During this time, Mr. Bennett took courses off-Island. In 1976, he was accepted into a post-graduate program in Boston run by Antioch University, without ever having earned a bachelor’s degree. In 1978, he was awarded a master’s in community mental health.

In 1978, he started Daybreak, a program that provides vocational and social rehabilitation services for those with mental illness. After six years there, he become the assistant director of the Mental Health Center, in addition to being program director of the Youth Center, Project, and Daybreak. He then became program director of the Mental Health Center, a position he held for 16 years. Later, he was promoted to associate director, and senior clinical advisor, positions he holds today.

Helping people through tough times

All along, he has continued to do clinical work, with a caseload of about 15 people per week. He has also run a weekly veterans group since 1984. Helping people through tough times came almost naturally to Mr. Bennett. His older brother, Dexter Mello, who died five years ago, was an inspiration. “He had mental illness most of his life, and it’s probably one of the reasons I was so interested in mental health,” he said. “I wondered about what would help him, what would make him better, because I worried a lot about him.

“And in the Air Force, I got used to treating patients, including psychiatric patients, so I was already into a kind of a healing field, and I liked that work.”

Mr. Bennett also has two younger half-brothers, Dudley and Jonathan Bennett, with whom he grew up, as well as Roy Scheffer, a cousin who joined his family when he was 12. “So my mother had five boys to bring up,” he said, with a smile and a slight shake of the head.

These days, after so many stints in so many administrative positions, Mr. Bennett is happy to be spending most of his time seeing clients, working with veterans. He continues to run the emergency services program, an extension of the hospital’s emergency room that cares for patients in emotional crisis, and he supervises younger clinicians, work he finds particularly fulfilling. “As David Smith and Milton Mazer were mentors to me, I want to pass that on to these young people too — it means a lot to me.”

Dr. Mazer is no longer alive, so it was left to David Smith to speak for them both at Mr. Bennett’s ceremony. “It is only in our hearts and souls that we can begin to understand the depth, the magnitude, the enormity, the cost of the sacrifice of the countless men and women who have given themselves in service of our nation. These are among those — often unnoticed, often unsung, too often neglected, often misunderstood — whom Tom Bennett has faithfully served throughout his 40 years of service to MVCS. We honor him this day and all those he has served.”

Mr. Bennett also continues to work with the MVCS administration on fundraising. “A lot of people don’t think about Community Services until they have a personal experience with us. But MVCS has been a lifeline for a lot of Islanders. And that’s one of the great things about working there, for me, because when you help a family, when you help a veteran, you can see it out there, and it becomes a greater part of what your work means to you.”

Veterans he’s helped praise Mr. Bennett. “I always found him to be intuitive and caring, and I thought he ran a good group, kept everybody focused — it helped a lot that he was a veteran,” said Lenny Jason, a Vietnam veteran and a regular at veterans group meetings for many years. “Tom is a good guy, and I think he’s made a difference in this community.”

Jared Meader, who served two tours in Iraq, says simply, “Tom is phenomenal at what he does — he truly cares. When I came back from Iraq, I was having personal issues. Because of him, I’m now going to yoga, as opposed to taking medication.”

“Tom is a good man,” said Steve Maxner, another Vietnam vet and regular group member, echoing the sentiments of so many others who have worked with Mr. Bennett.

With characteristic modesty, Mr. Bennett tends to deflect the praise from clients and colleagues. “I’ll be forever grateful to Community Services and the fact that I’ve been able to work there for 40 years,” he said. “And the community, for putting their trust in me all these years to work with them and their families. It’s something I cherish. I’ve been very lucky.”

Then again, so has MVCS, according to Julia Burgess, the agency’s executive director. “Tom’s dedication and vision have helped us continue what Dr. Mazer started,” she said at last month’s ceremony. “Hundreds if not thousands of lives have been changed for the better as a result of Tom’s interactions with them—countless hours of compassion, reason, and wisdom add up to making a healthier community for us all where we live, work and socialize.”

At the end of the day, literally, or at the end of the week, Mr. Bennett has turned to his family and close friends — for sustaining him over the years, for helping him keep things on an even keel. First comes his wife of almost 40 years, Carol Whitmarsh, who works at the regional high school in the special needs department, after running the advertising department of the Vineyard Gazette for many years. His three sons — Kane, Jason, and Teddy — mean the world to him, as do his two granddaughters, Delilah and Lillian, and daughters-in-law Jennifer and Pamela.

Still central in his life is his mother, Edith Bennett, who will be 90 in March. Still sharp as a tack, she lives on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, where Mr. Bennett has dinner with her every Tuesday night.