As a young girl, Elizabeth (Beth) Bennett learned a valuable lesson that has remained with her throughout her life:
If you’re not invited through the front door, you need to go through the window.
Bennett was in sixth grade at the time. Her mother was on the state human rights commission, and among her responsibilities was to interview members of the African-American community about their needs.
Daughter accompanied mother into north Minneapolis for the interviews, and they quickly ran into a problem. Black families saw two white people walking up to their homes and wouldn’t open the doors. The Bennetts told an African-American friend about their predicament and asked for help. She placed a few phone calls and the problem went away.
“She helped us get in the front door,” Bennett said. “She was our window. I never have forgotten that. It made all the difference in the world.”
Bennett has encountered more than a few closed doors in a half century of volunteer service to the nonprofit community. She has had people tell her “no” or that her latest quest was impractical, improbable or impossible. Unfazed, she has just looked for windows.
She always finds them, too, and along the way she has helped to build a children’s hospital, carry out hospital mergers and raise tens of millions of dollars for children’s health programs. She has served on many boards, some for decades at a time, and she always has been motivated by one factor.
“Mission,” she said. “You need a commitment to the mission of the organization you’re involved with. If you’re not committed to mission, you shouldn’t be involved – even for a month. If you are committed to mission, you can do some good.”
Bennett started doing good early in life. Beth Moran grew up in Minneapolis with two brothers, a dad who sold insurance and a mom who had been a teacher at Gillette Children’s Hospital in St. Paul and a social worker at a settlement house. Her parents had an extraordinary influence on her.
“It was expected in our family that you accepted the problems of the community as your problems,” she said, “and I liked problem solving. It didn’t dawn on me that there was another way to go. I had a history of following my mom in community and volunteer service activity. You learn at your mother’s knee, you know. It was just part of how we were raised.”
Bennett started a YWCA leadership group at West High School and taught fellow students volunteer skills such as how to put on a fund-raising event. She helped to register men for the draft at the Minneapolis Armory, and for that service and others received a Harry S. Truman National Leadership Award in 1947.
She had a chance to attend Wellesley College but chose the University of Minnesota to be closer to her twin brother, who received a hockey scholarship there and played goalie. Her goal was to become a teacher and go to medical school. She earned an associate arts degree in child development and married Russell Bennett II, a neighborhood sweetheart and aspiring attorney. They lived in New Jersey and California while he was in the service during the Korean War.
They returned to Minneapolis to raise two girls, and Bennett found herself volunteering for organizations such as the Minneapolis Junior League, United Way and Minneapolis Institute of Arts. She gravitated toward health care because three uncles had been doctors and she thought it offered the best opportunity “to help those who couldn’t help themselves.”
She served for 30 years on the boards of Northwestern Hospital and, after its 1970 merger with Abbott Hospital, Abbott-Northwestern. She became interested in children’s health issues in the late 1950s and worked for a decade to help raise more than $11 million to establish Minneapolis Children’s Hospital, which opened in 1973.
“That was quite a project,” she said. “We did everything under the sun to raise money for that hospital. We couldn’t afford to hire people, so we just did the work ourselves. I took marketing and fund-raising courses and did whatever was needed along the way.”
During her 34 years on the Children’s board, Bennett served as its chair as well as board chair of its parent corporation, Child Care. Minneapolis Children’s merged with St. Paul Children’s in 1994 and today has six locations, including Minnetonka, Roseville, Shakopee and Woodbury.
Bennett also was on the founding board of St. Therese Home in New Hope. She recently finished 10 years on the board of the Community Council for Aging and next June will wrap up 12 years of service on the University of Minnesota Children’s Foundation board. She chaired the foundation’s successful effort to raise $30 million as part of the university’s Campaign Minnesota, and last year received the medical school dean’s Community Service Award.
The list of board service doesn’t end there, however. It goes on and on and astounds even those closest to her. Her husband marvels at her ability to juggle so many interests, her passion for social justice, her razor-sharp memory and her love of humor.
“Beth is fearless in completing projects and meeting her goals,” he said. “If she knows she’s in the right, she’ll plow ahead. She’s like the Marines – she’ll set out to take the hill and she may get knocked around in the process, but she’ll still take the hill.”
U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton is among Bennett’s many admirers. He read a tribute to her into the Congressional Record on May 25, 2001, calling her a “jewel” who “touches others with (an) indispensable, inimitable spirit of enthusiasm, encouraging them to become involved, too.… To legions, she has been a champion.”
Bennett smiles at those kind words. While it is clear she is proud of them, she also shrugs them off. She didn’t set out to win awards or accolades, she says. She has wanted only to make this a better community in which all could live.
Even if she had to climb through a few windows to do it.
Elizabeth Bennett and St. Thomas• Joined the board of trustees in 1992 and serves on its Board Affairs, Institutional Advancement and Investment committees.• Had a one-word answer when asked about St. Thomas’ greatest challenge: “Survival!” She meant that along the lines of the university’s relevance, not out of any concerns it might fail. “We have an obli- gation to stay ahead of the curve – to understand what the community needs from an educational institution, what the faculty need to do their jobs and what the students need in terms of an education, and we then must meet those needs.”• Believes fervently that a Catholic, urban university such as St. Thomas also must live up to its mission of service to the community. “The need for this kind of institution is more important than ever. It can be easy to lose sight of that, but it’s so true. The community needs St. Thomas, and St. Thomas needs the community.”• Says her career of volunteer service to the nonprofit community allows her to bring “a different perspective” to the St. Thomas board of trustees than a corporate executive. “I’m the only person who is unemployed!” she jokes. “Or ‘unsalaried,’ as my husband calls it.”