Byline: Jessie-Lynne Kerr, Times-Union staff writer
Former U.S. Rep. Charles E. Bennett, widely regarded as one of Jacksonville's most trusted public servants since World War II, is dead.
The Jacksonville Democrat served in Congress for 44 years, was Florida's longest-serving congressman and was the second-longest tenured member of the House when he retired at the beginning of 1993.
Mr. Bennett died yesterday morning of natural causes in the nursing center at Cypress Village. He was 92.
Mr. Bennett suffered a stroke and a heart attack in October and was hospitalized for a month. When he was released, he went to the nursing center at Cypress Village, a retirement development where he and his wife of 50 years, Jean, had moved into a house in 1996 from their home of 67 years in Riverside.
During his service in the 81st through the 102nd Congresses -- he served along with Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and George H.W. Bush -- Mr. Bennett became a role model for those who aspired to public service.
His sense of modest humility and service to others was never compromised while others in Congress became enmeshed in scandals. "Mr. Clean," some called him. He was known as a principal advocate for ethical reforms in Congress. He sponsored legislation creating the House Ethics Committee and served as its first chairman.
"My father spent his life dedicated in service to this country," said his daughter, Lucinda Bennett, of Jacksonville. "There will never be another Charlie Bennett. My dad's honesty and service were exemplary."
During his early service, he refused his congressional paycheck, stating he had simple tastes and didn't need the money. He gave the government back $500,000, including his annual veterans disability benefits. And he returned pay raises totaling $120,000 in his last four years of congressional service. Excess campaign funds he donated to the National Park Service. To save tax money, he'd drive rather than fly back to Jacksonville if he planned to be there for a week or more.
A member of the powerful House Armed Services Committee for 40 years, Mr. Bennett was credited with aiding the buildup of the Navy's presence in Jacksonville. He also suggested to President Jimmy Carter that an auxiliary base at Kings Bay in Georgia would make a fine homeport for nuclear submarines.
During his tenure, Mr. Bennett cast about 18,100 votes and was known for never having missed a roll call vote. He also personally responded to constituents' letters and was known for his accessibility to those who elected him, holding open hours at his Jacksonville office frequently when Congress was not in session.
One thing that made Mr. Bennett's lengthy service remarkable was that he was slowed, but never stopped, by polio that handicapped him throughout his adult life.
He contracted the crippling disease while serving in the Army in the Philippines during World War II. He spent his last 16 months of Army service in a hospital at Hot Springs, Ark. He walked with the aid of a leg brace, canes or crutches until he used a wheelchair in recent years.
"It never seemed to really impair him or impede him," said State Attorney Harry Shorstein of Jacksonville.
When Mr. Bennett retired from Congress, he was asked to list the most important legislation he sponsored.
The list included providing combat pay of $50 a month to soldiers; making "In God We Trust" the U.S. motto and requiring it be included on all coins and currency; creating an ethics code for government service; creating the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; allowing the military to provide assistance in the interdiction of illegal drugs into the United States; co-sponsorship of the bill enacting the Americans With Disabilities Act; de-authorization of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal and creation of the Cross-Florida Parkway; and legislation providing federal assistance toward school construction. …