Assistant to the Editor of Production
“I wanted to have the potential to change the world, so I got a job here at J-D and haven’t looked back since,” said history teacher Tom Bennett of his career at Jamesville-DeWitt High School. That’s a bit of an understatement for a man who has taught here since 1973 and will retire this June after 43 years of service to J-DHS.
Mr. Bennett grew up in rural New York, in a small town along Route 20 called West Winfield, which is south of Utica. At a young age, Mr. Bennett always found himself interested in the liberal arts, but it wasn’t until his time at Colgate University that he decided he wanted history to be his lifelong passion.
“When I was in college, I had some very outstanding professors who solidified my interest in history,” says Mr. Bennett. As an undergraduate, Mr. Bennett was a history major, and later he took graduate courses to get certified as a teacher.
Mr. Bennett strives as teacher to have the same impact on his students that his professors had on him. While he cites his wonderful colleagues over the years as a source of interest and excitement, Mr. Bennett says the most memorable part of his time at J-DHS is the students. “The number one thing (I love) working directly with students. I love to have that connection, and to be able to introduce students to new ways of thinking, new information, and to watch them develop intellectually in the classroom,” says Mr. Bennett. “That’s what teaching is all about.”
Still, Mr. Bennett says his students have more of an effect on him than the other way around. Every year, students continue to amaze him and teach him new things. “It’s a mutual exchange. It’s not only what the student learns from the teacher, but what the teacher can learn from students. It keeps your ideas fresh and your attitude young, and that’s a pretty satisfying experience,” says Mr. Bennett.
That interaction with students is what Mr. Bennett will miss most about working at J-DHS. “To share ideas, to discuss, to debate, to disagree. The opportunity to do that in this kind of high school is something I’ll definitely miss,” says Mr. Bennett.
Mr. Bennett’s knowledge of history has become a defining characteristic for his students. “He’s just so knowledgable and that makes him a really great speaker. He’s inspired me to actually pay attention to what’s going on in the world,” says sophomore Jungyun Kim.
But what really sticks out about Mr. Bennett is that he genuinely cares about what students have to say and he’s always willing to listen and discuss, says senior Anna Pluff. And for Pluff, Mr. Bennett’s inspiration encouraged her to apply to Colgate University, his alma mater. “I wouldn’t be heading to Colgate right now if it weren’t for him, and I’m starting to consider history and teaching as possible careers because of him. I can’t put into words how grateful I am for him,” she says.
This degree of respect for Mr. Bennett is just as high among his colleagues. Principal Paul Gasparini who has worked with Mr. Bennett for the past 15 years, describes him as a “brilliant teacher.” “Mr. Bennett really makes history come alive. I’ve never met anyone, college professors or professional historians, who has as much knowledge as he does about the subject,” says Principal Gasparini. As a teacher passionate about learning and his students, Mr. Bennett stands for the best of J-DHS, says Mr. Gasparini. “He’s that whole package and the J-D community will miss him.”
As a colleague of his in the social studies department for over 14 years, Donna Oppedisano has been tasked with delivering a speech at Mr. Bennett’s retirement party. But for a man who has done so much for the J-D community, Ms. Oppedisano says she will have a tough time putting Mr. Bennett’s accomplishments into words. “It’s so hard for me to encapsulate all of the things Mr. Bennett is. I’m not sure any article or any speech can do him justice, because he’s so many things,” says Ms. Oppedisano.
Though he may be making an end to his teaching career, life won’t be slowing down for fast-paced Mr. Bennett. He plans to spend more time on activities he’s currently involved in, including volunteering around the community. As someone well-educated in American history and current events, Mr. Bennett serves as a member on the Board of Directors of the National Abolition Hall of Fame and the Central New York Council for the Social Studies.
With a historic presidential election coming up this fall, Mr. Bennett is waiting with anticipation to be able to support both presidential and congressional candidates. He says he hopes to raise voter turnouts in this election cycle, by doing the “grunt work” to get people out to the voting booths.
Besides continuing to give back to the community in his volunteering, Mr. Bennett is also excited to be able to do more of the activities he isn’t able to do often because of teaching, including hiking, kayaking, and traveling with his wife. “I’m going to miss working here, but I think I’m at the point where it’s going to be exciting to reinvent myself and challenge myself in new ways,” says Mr. Bennett.