My father-in-law, Bennat Mullen, died unexpectedly on Saturday. He was the sweetest, gentlest and most considerate man I’ve ever known. He could devour a challenging book or just listen to the wind in the trees with the same simple joy, wonder and engagement he brought to everything. Bennat was that rare sort who would ask what you thought about something and then attend carefully to your answer. He didn’t look for his next chance to speak. He sought his next chance to listen and learn. Bennat met all with the conviction that he could learn something from them, and like Chaucer’s Clerk from Oxford, “gladly would he learn and gladly teach.”
Education was Bennat’s lifelong passion and key to his achievements. He came from nothing. “Dirt poor” aptly describes his early family life. No one before him had finished school. Even the odd spelling of “Bennat” is legacy to his parents’ near-illiteracy. But, thanks to the Air Force and the miracle of the G.I. Bill, Bennat Mullen rose from the hardscrabble, attended college, became a school principal, earned a Ph.D. and emerged an esteemed Professor of Education. He made the world a better place by teaching teachers. Who among us is not indebted for that?
Bennat was a simple man, but only as simple is admirable. He was a man of simple faith and simple tastes. Though he appreciated fine things, he gratefully embraced simple pleasures: a night under the stars, the warmth of a crackling fire, a passing freight train, a brisk swim, a glimpse of a Cardinal, a hot cup of coffee and time with his wife, family and friends. Bennat shared an uncomplicated, unconditional affection with his family and friends. You never had to worry what sort of mood Bennat was in. He was always in the mood to love you.
For almost 24 years, Bennat had another moniker: Granddad. My father died long before my children arrived; so, Granddad Mullen had to do double duty. No one has ever been a better grandfather. No one was ever more tightly wrapped around a grandchild’s finger nor enjoyed it more. Bennat bathed grandchildren in a ceaseless shower of warmth and attention. When Granddad was around, there was no doubt who was the most admired and gifted child the world had ever known. There was an innocent, childlike quality to Granddad, again in all respects admirable. Kids sensed he was like them–not just their protector, but their peer and playmate. If they were playing “beauty shop,” Bennat’s hair was loaded with goo. If they were digging to China, Bennat was covered in dirt, too.
I met Bennat in Houston, 29 years ago this month. He came along on my first date with my soon-to-be wife. I spent most of the evening talking with him about an upcoming business trip he was making to my hometown, New York. I liked him instantly. Not a day since has passed when I haven’t felt fortunate to have had him in my life.
There was so much more to Bennat than I’ve shared. I haven’t shown you the well-traveled scholar, or mentioned his honesty, intelligence, decency, public service, generosity, rectitude, compassion, constancy and fellowship. I haven’t praised his indomitable struggle against Parkinson’s disease, nor mentioned what a splendid and devoted husband and father he was to his wife, Patricia, and his three children, Diana, Ben and David. I noted only a handful of the reasons we loved him dearly, and why we will miss him so much, today, tomorrow and forever. To know Bennat was to love him. It was just that simple.
Thank you Bennat, no father-in-law has ever been a better father.