Educator, Molder of Men and Women
Virtually every high school principal has at least a Master’s Degree. Don Bennett, one of the most respected high principals ever to serve in Pennsylvania’s Shenango Valley, went beyond that to complete additional graduate school courses.
But that’s probably not what made him so successful as a basketball coach, teacher, and school administrator. More likely, he learned his most important lessons outside of school: facing life without a father from age 7; picking worms off tomatoes and bugs off potatoes; going door to door selling vegetables; handling molten steel and shoveling slag in a mill; bouncing a ball on hardwood floors; learning to cope with wins and losses; enjoying success and coping with disappointments.
Don was born in East Liverpool, Ohio, in 1923. His father, Walter Bennett, had a good job as head electrician at Crucible Steel in Midland, Ohio. Unfortunately, he fell several times from great heights in the plant. When he was only 30 years old, a blood clot formed in his leg, moved up to his heart, and killed him. Don was just seven years, his brother Jack eleven, and his younger brother Dean four.
Don’s uncles and aunts offered to raise the boys in their homes in Colorado, but his mother, Sarah Jane Baxter Bennett, was a proud woman. She and her boys moved into her parents’ home.
“It was during the early days of the Great Depression,” Don said. “My mother worked in the pottery shop as much as she could, often only one day a week or every two weeks. My grandfather had a garden. I learned to do all the gardening , and went house to house selling tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and corn.”
Sarah Bennett served as an uncompromising example of strength and courage for her sons.
“One day I came home and said, ‘Joe has a new sweater.’ She asked where he got it. I said, ‘At the Salvation Army. Do you suppose I could have one?’ She said, ‘No, Son, I’m sorry, but you will wear what we will earn.’ That was a lesson in life that I never forgot.”
Sarah started dating a man she met in the pottery shop. After making sure it was okay with her boys, she married him. She and her sons moved into his house.
“He was a good man,” Don said, “very talented working with the pottery wheel. He made beautiful works.”
Don started high school in 1937. In his sophomore year, he was enchanted when he saw the Westminster College Towering Titans play basketball in the prestigious East Liverpool Tournament. Later, in his senior year, Don himself played in the tournament on a team made up of three of his school mates and their coach.
“The coach acted as a pivot man, feeding the four of us,” Don said. “We beat the Ohio state high school champs, Mt. Union College, Wooster College, and Geneva College. In the semi-finals, we were ahead of Duquesne at half-time. They beat us by keeping the ball away from our coach in the second half.”
A girl on the school newspaper asked Don what he was going to do after graduation.
“I told her I was going to Westminster College. I hadn’t even talked with anyone at Westminster.”
As fate would have it, Don did go to Westminster through the help of others and through his own hard work. The college required him to pay part of his costs with money he had earned at Crucible Steel, but promised him full scholarship if he made the top fifteen of the basketball team, which he did.
But fate is fickle. On December 7 of Don’s freshman year, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. When he was a sophomore, recruiters came to the college to enlist students into the armed forces reserves.
“I had severe allergy and respiratory problems,” Don said, “so I had to lie to get into the Air Force Reserves. The recruiters said we would be able to stay in school, but I got called up to report on February 1.”
Don’s military service lasted only six months because of his allergies. He went back to Westminster, where he continued to excel at basketball. He got his teaching degree with his original class in 1945.
“At Westminster I was a lucky man,” Don said. ” Back then, Westminster played against major colleges and universities. I played against some of the best players in the country. I played in Madison Square Garden twice, in Boston Garden with the old parquet floor, and other great arenas.”
After graduating, Don played basketball for Goodyear Tire in the National Industrial League. After just one year, he decided he’d rather be a high school teacher and basketball coach. He applied for the head coaching position at the high school in Crafton, PA, and got it.
“Two years later I resigned because of the inadequate gymnasium there,” Don said.
Don moved back home and accepted a grade school teaching job with the understanding that he would be released if a basketball coaching position opened up.
“I saw in newspaper that Dudey Moore, assistant coach at Sharon, was moving on to be head coach at Duquesne University. I said to my buddies, boy, I’d like to have that job. They said, then go for it.”
He did, with great vigor – and a decided edge. While at Crafton, Don had coached basketball at a summer camp near Lake Erie. Many kids from Sharon had attended, including the sons of some of the city’s most influential citizens.
” I called them up and asked them to put in a good word for me with the Superintendent. They all did, and I was invited for an interview. When I arrived, Mr. Musser hollered to his secretary from his office. ‘Is that Bennett? Send him in. I want to meet the guy that knows more people in Sharon than I do.'”
Don was hired as coach of the ninth grade basketball team. He spent two years coaching basketball and teaching civics at the junior high building (now Penn State). In 1951, he moved up to the high school to serve as varsity assistant coach.
With time on his hands in the off-season, Don moonlighted as a band singer. While it didn’t earn him big bucks, it got him something much better.
“Jimmy Williams paid me $20 to sing at the Williams Cafe, across the street from Rossi’s Barber Shop in Sharpsville. One evening this tall blonde comes in. I told my buddies, ‘I’m going to ask her to dance. I went over and asked her. She said, ‘No thank you.’ Later I went over and asked her again. She said, ‘No thank you.’ I told the band leader to play Tony Bennett’s ‘Because of You.’ I looked at her and sang, ‘Because of you there’s a song in my heart; because of you my romance had its start.’ I really poured it out. I sat down and said to my buddies, I’m going to ask her one more time. If she turns me down, to heck with her. So I went over and said, ‘Would you care to dance?’ She said, ‘I’d be happy to.’
Her name was Gladys Sprow. She was engaged at that time, but that didn’t worry Don.
“I took her home to meet my mother and brother. I said to my brother, ‘Did you see Gladys’s ring? He said, ‘I don’t want to see that ring. When you get yours on her finger I’ll take a look.’ So I turned to Gladys and said, ‘When do you want to get married?’ She says, ‘What?’ I said again, ‘When do you want to get married? Before basketball or after basketball, because during basketball you won’t be seeing me.’ She said, ‘If that’s the choice, then before basketball.’ So we got married October 30, 1952.”
That was a chilly evening as they drove toward Erie on their way toward a Niagara Falls honeymoon. Don asked Gladys if she would like him to turn on the heater. She said yes. BIG mistake. Don’s buddies had smeared limburger cheese on the heater.
In spite of that inauspicious beginning, they remained happily married for very many years. Their only daughter, Dawn Renee (now Leavesley), was born in 1961.
Don served as teacher and assistant basketball coach until he was promoted in 1965 to head coach. His instruction and inspiration helped the team to many victories, including the 1957 state championship.
“During those years, my students and I had a very close rapport,” Don said. “I tried to make all of my classes interesting. History can be very boring, but I kept their attention, and we got along very well.”
In 1967, Don left teaching and basketball to become a guidance counselor. When the new school opened in 1969, he was promoted to assistant principal. Four years later, he moved to the superintendent’s office to become Director of Personnel. Finally, in 1976, the Board selected him as principal of the High School. He served in that capacity until he retired in 1984.
“I tell you, it was all a wonderful experience. The students respected me and I respected them. I was their cheerleader. I loved to speak at the rallies.”
Don has been actively involved with the school ever since he retired. He was the voice of the Tigers football team for 25 years. “I get invited to many reunions – six this past summer. I enjoy it. I tell a few jokes, and I sing a few songs for them.”
For all his contributions, the Sharon Board of Education added his name to the Educational Service Center, making it the Donald A. Bennett Educational Service Center.
Unfortunately, Don’s wife Gladys passed away in 2007, nearly 55 years after they were married. He remains close with his daughter, Dawn, who lives with her husband Scott and son Connor in Charlotte, NC.
“I tell everyone we lived in the best years,” Don said. “Yes, we had the war, but we saw so much as this country expanded and became leader of the world. We may have problems again now, but we’ll come out of it eventually.”
By Joe Zentis – Published in the Herald, Sharon, PA, November 22, 2010