RIDGEFIELD — As he stood among his young pupils two weeks ago, wearing safety goggles and a dark, dust-covered overshirt, Kent Bennett grinned like a proud papa as students showed him their wares toward the end of one of his final industrial arts classes.
He continued at View Ridge Middle for years after he could have retired because of the kids, and now his 35-year career was winding down.
"They're the light of my life, other than my (four) grandkids," Bennett, 61, said, in a moment of reflection inside his office adjacent to the shop class.
View Ridge Middle concludes its school year today and so marks the denouement of Bennett's teaching career — an end his students and fellow teachers seemed to dread at least as much, if not more, than he did.
"You can't replace a Kent Bennett," said Principal Chris Griffith, who is in his fourth year at View Ridge. "Just what he brings —
the personality, the smile, the drive and the constant desire to improve."
View Ridge Middle will move next year to a STEM program focusing on an applied technology approach to industrial arts — design on a computer will lead to hands-on projects, for instance. Bennett believes students will embrace the 21st century industrial arts program, even if at first it seems foreign.
Technology-based industrial arts classes have replaced traditional shop classes across Clark County, school administrators said.
Whereas industrial arts will live on at View Ridge, the spirit Bennett brought to the school and the community for two generations will not be replaced, his students, fellow teachers and administrators agreed.
"The kids are going to hate" not having Bennett as a teacher, predicted Randy Sokolowski, 15, who had the teacher for seventh- and eighth-grade industrial arts classes. "Whoever meets him finds out he's the best teacher out of everybody."
Finding his place
When the job placement center at then-Western Washington State College suggested an opening at View Ridge, Bennett could not point out Ridgefield on a map. The Olympia native thought it was in Eastern Washington.
But after driving south on Interstate 5 with his wife, Diana, he found himself enamored with Ridgefield's small school district and its hard-working and well-disciplined students.
That was 1977.
Bennett has not worked a day since, his colleagues said, such was the enjoyment he derived from interacting with students, noodling with endless shop projects and playing practical jokes on his co-workers. He split his career teaching industrial arts and Northwest history.
"He had the skills and the interest in the kids," said former View Ridge Principal Gary Dietderich. "Sometimes you see one or the other. It was nice to see the combination (in him)."
Dietderich, who has served as Ridgefield High's industrial arts teacher the past three years, praised Bennett for mentoring him in his current capacity and for preparing his middle school students for high school.
Bennett agreed with his colleagues' depiction that he had not worked a single day. Teaching has been his fountain of youth, of sorts.
His students respected him, he said, because he gave them due respect, empathized with their sometimes painful trek through adolescence and did not blow disciplinary situations out of proportion.
"Going to be difficult'
On a shelf inside Bennett's office stood a piece of wood bearing the words "We will miss you" engraved in green. A seventh-grader in his class made it, Bennett remarked.
This year, after 35 years, Bennett decided to step away for good, to spend more time with his ailing mother, his grandchildren, his wife of 40 years and his myriad projects, including but not limited to restoring his father's 1955 Ford Crown Victoria.
School secretary Denise Krause recalled, with a touch of sadness, watching as Bennett made his final decision.
In his hand, he held customary paperwork asking teachers their plans for the following year. Bennett told Krause to watch him, and then he checked the box for retirement and signed his paper. The two had joked the past five or six years about him leaving, but the reality of it happening forced Krause to walk away.
"It was hard to see him do it," Krause recalled.
"When I come in next year," she added, "and look at the shop and see he's not there, it's going to be difficult."
Even though he won't be in the classroom, Bennett assured he would still be around.
"I've worked with some fantastic teachers," he said. "They've become my family. That's something I never want to lose."