Eight-term mayor navigated ‘crazy time’

By Dan Moffett

Roger Bennett was sworn in as the mayor of Briny Breezes right when the town needed him most. 

“I’m so pleased the people had enough faith in this old loon to elect me,” he told a reporter in 2007 after easily defeating two opponents in what was then only the second contested election in Briny’s history.

Mr. Bennett died Jan. 12 at Bethesda Memorial Hospital in Boynton Beach after a short illness. He was 85 and serving his eighth one-year term as mayor.

Mr. Bennett would become the right mayor at the right time when a condo developer offered $510 million to buy the mobile home community and build condos — lots of them. Things were about to get crazy in Briny.

The prospect of becoming instant millionaires turned some neighbors against each other.

Council meetings got raucous. Residents in surrounding communities hurled sanctimonious complaints about excessive growth — and greed. Reporters from across the country came to tell an often unhappy story.

Neighbors had persuaded Mr. Bennett to run for office, believing his long career as a journalist and educator equipped him to articulate the town’s case to the public, and perhaps more important, to Briny’s corporate board.

“It was a crazy time,” said Barbara Bennett, his wife of 58 years. “It was such an unknown. It was really unknown territory for Briny Breezes. We didn’t know where this was going.”

The real estate deal ultimately fell apart, but Briny Breezes didn’t. Through all the tumult, Mayor Bennett kept his smile and good cheer, defusing conflict with an ever-ready quip. He steered Briny through its greatest storm.

“He was our best mayor,” said Nancy Boczon, who served with Mr. Bennett on the council then. “He was such a good mayor he spoiled us for what a mayor could be.”

During the 1980s, Mr. Bennett ran the Mass Communications Department at Texas State University in San Marcos. He said that was a lesson in human nature that prepared him for turmoil in Briny Breezes.

“When you’re dealing with 25 faculty members and 3,600 students, it’s always fraught with drama,” he told The Coastal Star in 2013. “I’ve never been one to bulldoze people. I try to be sensible and forgiving.”

The Bennetts bought their lot in Briny Breezes in 1991 and moved to the town full-time after retiring in 1995. 

Becoming Brinyites was easy, Barbara Bennett said. “There was a real community here. Everybody looked after everybody else. The feeling that we’re all neighbors has always been here.”

Roger and Barbara met while working at his hometown paper in southern Ohio, the Portsmouth Times. He was the City Hall reporter and she was the society editor. Mr. Bennett served five years with the Navy during the Korean War and after his discharge focused on his education.

He earned journalism degrees from Ohio University and then a doctorate from the University of Texas. Mr. Bennett went on to teach at Ohio U., specializing in First Amendment issues, and earned professor of the year honors. He spent the last 23 years of his career at San Marcos.

In retirement, the Bennetts used their Briny home as their base for traveling the world — cruising, backpacking, exploring.

“It’s easy to travel from Briny,” Mrs. Bennett said. “When the time comes, you close the door, leave and you don’t worry about a thing.”

The Bennetts sailed twice around the world with 400 students and faculty on Semester at Sea, the shipboard university. They lived in Poland for a time when Roger taught at the University of Silesia. The only continent the Bennetts didn’t visit was Antarctica.

After a four-year hiatus, Mr. Bennett returned to public service in 2017 when the town found itself without a mayor and in need of his leadership.

“Roger was an incredible role model,” said Sue Thaler, president of the Briny Town Council. “He was one of the most positive people I’ve known. He was a lifelong educator who was committed to the town of Briny Breezes and educating people about the importance of our municipality.”

Said Boczon: “A great sense of humor. A great mayor. A great man.”

His daughter, Jo Bennett, a former Briny Breezes resident who lives in the County Pocket with her husband, Jay Kelley, said her father would want to be remembered for his unpretentious, genial nature.

“He was an open-minded friend of everyone,” she said. “He was a welcoming kind of guy who’d slap people on the back and open his arms to them. He never wanted to be thought of as judgmental. And he wasn’t.”

Besides his wife and daughter, Mr. Bennett is survived by his son, Roger Bennett II, and his son’s partner, Takahiro Oda, of Cologne, Germany.

The family is planning a celebration of life service on the Briny beach, probably in early June. A group of Mr. Bennett’s former students is planning a memorial service in San Marcos. 

The family requests memorial donations go to Semester at Sea, semesteratsea.org/giving/ or 800-854-0195. 

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