LONOKE, Ark. -- While reluctant to talk about his accomplishments, he will talk airplanes. Even that, though, isn’t done without some long pauses that hint at sadness. This is because, he says, it’s time to put his preferred means of travel to rest. Buyers take note: his plane is up for sale, and he’s willing to work a deal.
But while he admits the need to unload the bird, he’s hardly happy about it. Talk for a bit and you can understand the reticence: he knows planes and he knows flying as few do. Most importantly, letting go of the plane will mean having to drive to check his farms instead of flying — something he’s not keen on.
Wayne Bennett is a calm man — Zen calm, if there is such a thing in the Bible Belt — and this trait has served him well whether flying through some God-awful thunderstorm or sitting in a board room.
“Wayne is incredibly calm,” says John McClendon, a farming friend from Marianna, Ark. “I don’t know if he was born that way or became that way out of necessity. I know this: if I walk in a room and he’s there, I immediately feel better. He’s one of only a couple of people I’ve ever met like that.
“I can’t emphasize how much he brings to the table. He’s very smart and astute and able to handle any situation. I’ve been in Washington, D.C., meeting with politicians with him, I’ve been in contentious board meetings with him, and I’ve been overseas with him. It doesn’t matter where he is, he’s impossible to ruffle. People just like him — he’s the rare person who’s never negative and people gravitate to that.”
Bennett, now 84, is past president of the American Soybean Association (during the 1980s) and the Arkansas Soybean Association. Saying “it’s time for some youngsters to have a shot,” he recently asked to be removed from consideration for another term on the Arkansas board.
To honor his long-time service to the crop’s betterment, the board recently held a “retirement or going away party — you know how they do these things: a plaque, a speech, you know. I tried to talk them out of doing it, but they insisted. To be honest, I love everyone around the board, but that isn’t my cup of tea — publicity just isn’t my thing.”
McClendon laughs when he hears Bennett’s comments. “That sounds just like him, deflecting all that attention. He’d rather talk about anything over himself. He won’t brag on himself at all.”
Joe Kirksey, another long-time friend, says, “If there was ever a true Southern gentleman, Wayne Bennett is it. He’s a gentleman down in his bones, in his blood. They don’t make men like Wayne anymore.”
Bennett was born and raised on a 40-acre farm in a small community called Sand Hill. His parent’s folks were all farmers.
“In 1936, my father moved the family to Lonoke. I graduated from high school here and then headed up to Fayetteville (the University of Arkansas) to attend college. I got a degree in agriculture, and I’m a long-time Razorback.”
A cheerleader for soybeans, Bennett started farming around Lonoke, Ark., in 1946, right after coming home from WWII.
“We didn’t plant soybeans in those early days,” he says. “It was the mid-50s before we started messing with soybeans. A few others were planting before us, but we were among the first.
“Back then, old man Dortch, with the help of a breeder he hired out the University of Arkansas, developed some of the first soybean varieties we used. The first variety I remember using was called DortchSoy. In the beginning, most everyone around here who planted soybeans used Dortch varieties.”
At the time, he says, soybeans were very tricky. Producers had to harvest a crop at just the right time or the beans would pop out.
“When the moisture got low, the seed covers would just open and the beans would fall to the ground. If you didn’t catch them at just the right time for harvest, they’d be bird food. Farmers really had to watch their crop closely. We’ve been through a lot of trials and tribulations with soybeans. Now, though, the varieties are really good.”
Bennett works several farm locations — 4,000 acres around the Tucker prison farm near Wright in Jefferson County. The drive from Lonoke — where he works another 4,000 acres — isn’t a short one.
“It’s true that I love to fly, but the real reason for the plane was work. It saved time. I flew back and forth between our farms and home every day for years. I’d fly down in the morning, work the fields and then fly home at night. I always looked forward to that flight home after a long day of work. No matter what happened on the ground during the day, I could always be above it going home.”
For Bennett, flying hasn’t always been a thing to relish. During one span it was a thing to survive. In his office, there are two pictures hanging around his desk. One is a sepia-toned photograph of his father’s family. The other is a picture of a fighter airplane, a P-47 single-engine.
“I was a fighter pilot in WWII, and that’s what I flew around the Pacific with the Seventh Air Force. I started out in Hawaii and ended up flying missions over Japan. My squadron was flying missions over Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped. I wasn’t there — I was home on a 30-day leave — and didn’t have to go back because those bombs ended the war, thank God.”
Bennett reluctantly admits he was in many “hairy” situations. There were 33 pilots he graduated flying school with. All went overseas to fight together. Ten came back.
“Now, of the 23 that didn’t make the war’s end, not all were killed,” he says. “Some were sent back to the States because they couldn’t handle the fighting — their minds broke. But, sadly, a large portion of my class was killed.”
It was nerve-wracking, he says: pilots were in single-engine planes and all missions were over water. “As soon as you took off, you were over water. We’d fly four and a half hours over water, dive bomb and strafe an island and then fly back. Of those nine hours, we were probably over the target area 30 minutes. It was frightening. Sometimes, the fuel gauge would be on zero when you got back, the engine would be sucking fumes. We lost some pilots that way — they’d run out of fuel, hit the water and never be seen again.”
More pilots were lost, though, by flying in bad weather. “People don’t understand how we could lose more pilots to weather than from combat — but that’s what happened. The weather bureau then didn’t tell us much. The Pacific Ocean is huge — a pilot would leave the base on an island, fly back after a mission and be unable to find his base. The weather was totally unpredictable.”
In one case, Bennett says, another squadron (flying P-51s) was off to a mission. The 30 planes hit such horrible weather that 25 went down. A couple of weeks later, one or two pilots were picked up.
“All those men, fine men, were lost to a squall,” he says. “We just lived with that possibility. We just didn’t have good enough instruments, and conditions were deceptive. We couldn’t get above the clouds or weather like they can now. We had to just fly through any storms.”
When he got back home after the war, Bennett considered crop dusting as a career. In the end, he says, “I had better sense. I stayed away from flying for four years. Then, I joined the Air National Guard out of Little Rock.”
Shortly after, he bought his own plane and has had one ever since.
“I’ve still got the one I’m trying to sell,” he says. “A while back, I had to quit flying to take care of my wife. She died recently, but I don’t think I’ll get back behind the stick. That’s passed.”
Bennett, says McClendon, “is for anything that’s right. If it’s not right, or borderline, don’t bring it to him. He walks the straight and narrow. To come through all the things he has — whether in farming, in combat, in leadership roles — requires strong, disciplined leadership. He’s just a cut above the rest of us.
“I’ll tell you this: his birthday is on Feb. 11. Every year on that day, I make a point to appreciate it. I’m serious — he’s that special of a man. He’s my friend.”
(Editor’s note: As far as they can tell, the author and feature subject are unrelated.)