Utah Centennial Studies


Philanthropists: Servants Of The Community Packet B


Volunteer, 83, Moves Slowly But Covers a Lot of Ground
By Jack Fenton

Nearing 84 years, Lowell Bennion moves slowly, but he still covers a lot of ground.

Mr. Bennion, who well may be Utah's patriarch of volunteerism, continues to make his Wednesday rounds to elderly and disabled people who could use a little company.

Parkinson's disease and a fall several years ago left his arm almost useless. But still he slowly checks over a list of about 300 people he met during the 17 years he directed the Community Services Council.

"They face life alone," he explains. "The list tells me who to check on."

The drivers who take Mr. Bennion on his rounds, usually students from the University of Utah's Lowell Bennion Community Service Center, get schooled in the art of helping the elderly.

"Us young guys try to tell them too much, to keep them busy," says Rob Vande Merwe, a graduate student and one of the drivers. "Mr. Bennion mostly sits and listens. He doesn't put on a show. He just wants to be with them. to show respect."

The shy, humble Mr. Bennion has been a fixture on the U. campus for more than half a century. He founded the U.'s LDS Institute of Religion on 1935, then went on to become a popular sociology professor and associate dean of students.

But it is not enough for him to teach. Mr. Bennion must also do.

Mr. Vande Merwe recalls his mentor talking about the purpose of religion with a church audience "expecting warm fuzzies."

"Instead, he chastised us for talking about the right thing to do but not doing anything," Mr. Vande Merwe said. "'Let's stop talking,' he said. 'Let's go out and paint some houses.' He's an inspiration."

Advocates for low-income issues saw Mr. Bennion's stature in religious and educational communities adding credibility to their causes, said Steve Johnson, director of Utahans Against Hunger, who remembers the Utah Food Bank being created in 1978 while Mr. Bennion headed the Community Service Council. The bank gave away 2.4 million pounds of food to hungry people last year.

"Everyone concentrates on his humanitarian achievements, but he is a rather astute game player," Mr. Johnson said. "He knows how the system works. He knows the people. He is willing to use those connections to help others."

"He's also not particular about whom he helps", said Rita Inoway, who directs the Community Service Council's Volunteer Center. She has watched Mr. Bennion work with all kinds of religious groups. "Religion and race didn't matter to him. He's one of a kind."

Irene Fisher, current director of the Lowell Bennion Center, recalls visiting some older people in their homes and finding out Mr. Bennion had already been there, planting tomatoes and washing dishes despite his limited mobility.

Ms. Fisher saw it as a tribute to Mr. Bennion's persistence, but she still was sad that a community with so many resources would leave it to the elderly people to watch out for each other. "We could take care of the elderly in this community if we just decide to do it."

Mr. Bennion acknowledged he might have pulled a few weeds, but he would prefer that wasn't mentioned. "I've had so much recognition it's embarrassing."

Then, after a long pause, he changed his mind. "It might encourage others to do more."