Vernon Dean Bennett—My Dad, My Hero

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Still kicking and as mischievous as ever!

75th Birthday fun!

What can I say about my Dad?  He was a man of many words.  He loved to talk!  But he wasn’t talking just to hear his own voice.  He was telling stories—usually inappropriate, often long, but always with a belly laugh punch line at the end.  In another life, he must have been a comedian.  His innate ability to spin a yarn, tell a tall tale and rivet an audience with his accounts of people, places and things is what must have helped earn him senior class president, friends from all walks of life during his 30 years of work at General Motors Leeds Plant, and people signing his memorial guest book with, “I always enjoyed talking to him when he came into the bank where I worked.”  The man could tell a good story.

Daddy was a country boy through and through.  The youngest of 12 kids, he grew up on a farm in northwest Missouri living off the land.  He was an outdoorsman out of genetics and necessity.  If the zombie apocalypse happens, he’s your Daryl.  He would keep you alive!  You couldn’t pay him to eat turnips because that’s all his family had to eat one long, hard winter when he was growing up.  He was an avid hunter, a great fisherman and a lover of nature.  The critters, poison ivy, June bugs and mosquitos that cause me to scream and run for the safety of concrete were comfort to him.  Urban legend has it that when his beloved 19 year old brother Keith died in the Korean war, my then 16-year old Dad headed for the woods alone and didn’t come back for weeks.  His nickname shortly thereafter became the lone bone.

Senior Class President - 1955

Senior Class President – 1955

Daddy believed in family.  He lived a mile from two of his closest and adored brothers Scott and Jeep, and his childhood home.  He was incredibly connected to all of his siblings; Ed, Wayne, Norma, Wanda, Louise, Mary Ann, Lorene, LaNell, and of course, his fallen brother Keith. For his wife, Joan, and six children, Billy Dean, Sherri, Lori, Brenda, John and me, he would take a bullet.  I read a love letter to my mom he wrote back in 1983 when he used to work nights at the plant and had to spend Monday through Friday in Kansas City because the farm we moved to was almost two hours away.  Paraphrasing, he wrote, “I miss you so, my special lady.  I wish I could be with you and the kids.  But I was able to work 11 hours yesterday, I’ll get 11 hours tomorrow, 9 hours Wednesday, 11 hours Thursday, 8 hours Friday, 4 hours Saturday and 3 hours Sunday.  Be home soon.  I love you.”  He had a lot of mouths to feed.

Before me...

Before me…5 kids, one not yet made.

Daddy ran an amazing fishing school.  Yes, that’s right.  Fishing school.  When we were kids, my siblings and I would gather together and he taught us which bait went for what fish, which fishing lure to use in what type of water.  I used to watch those fishing shows with him.  The shows where some guy would sit in a boat by himself and cast his fishing rod far into the water until he eventually caught a fish.  At the time, it was riveting.  Dad had high hopes for me to become a great fisherwoman.  But I wasn’t very good.  I caught a few small fish here and there and one big catfish once when I was like 7.  I definitely let him down on that one.  Fortunately, about 10 days before he died, I was able to show him a rough cut of my film Collusions and he loved it.  He said, “I’m proud of you.”  Clearly, I had made the right choice in careers.  I was a much better actress than fisherwoman.

Daddy loved to read and to have fun.  He was always the life of the party.  He could play guitar, sing and dance like nobody’s business.  Our family gatherings were notorious for good fun, much drink and raucous country music.  To watch him and my Mother waltz together was one of my favorite childhood pastimes.  Theirs was a love story that spanned 57 years—married 56 of those.  Not that their relationship was perfect or without tumultuous times, but the man loved his wife.  She was whom he asked for before he died.  She was his grounding center, his true north.

Mother and Daddy Dancing

Mother and Daddy Dancing

I had an opportunity once when I was 20 years old to spend the last moments of life with my beloved grandmother before she passed away.  Eye-Doc Sis was on one side of the hospital bed holding Grandma’s hand, my mother was on the other side holding her other hand.  I was at the foot of the bed staring at her bad wig, which was slightly askew revealing her bald as a baby head.  Her eyes were closed, her body shriveled and small, riddled with the brain cancer that was about to kill her.  And I choked—literally and figuratively.  I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t stay.  I turned and walked away.  I sat on a hard, cold bench outside her nursing home room shaking from fear as her life ebbed away.  It was a regret that never went away.  I vowed years ago, if I ever had the same opportunity again, I would take it.

When Daddy was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare form of bile duct cancer, and given six months to live, it was devastating.  I became a little girl again, shaking from fear.  How could my Dad ever not be there for me?  But deep in my heart, I knew what I had.  I had a second chance—a second chance to be there…for him—the love of my life.    This time I wouldn’t choke.  This time I would be ready.  This time I would be brave.

On February 28, 2014 at 9:30am central standard time, I was lying next to my Dad, stroking his forehead, holding his hand, and telling him I loved him as he took his last breath.

High School Graduation

High School Graduation

Thank you, Daddy, for the opportunity.  It was the most profound experience of my life.  Thank you for everything you have given me.  Thank you for teaching me how to fish, for modeling what hard work looks like, for showing me how to have a good time, for exemplifying dedication to family, for making me laugh, for instilling in me the love of storytelling, for displaying what true love is about.  And most of all, thank you for showing me what acceptance and bravery look like in the face of death.   You helped bring me into this world.  It was my honor and privilege to see you out.  I will love you forever.  Rest in peace, Daddy.

Until tomorrow, create from what you have…opportunities to be brave.

Kelli Joan Bennett is a filmmaker, actress, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for creative thinking and Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Think Outside The Box Inside The Box Media.

Daddy’s memorial page:


  1. Kelli, this is the most beautiful tribute and love letter. I’m so sorry for your loss. At the same time I admire and honor your deep love for this man who helped to guide you into being the amazing and generous woman, daughter, sister, friend you are.

    “The man could tell a good story.” Darling friend, you have your dad in you.

    Rest in peace, Dean Bennett.

  2. So glad you were there with him. Thanks for sharing him with us. Much love.

  3. You are a beautiful writer and I’m sure your dad can feel every ounce of love that poured out of you in this incredibly heartfelt essay. My heart aches for you and your family. May you celebrate this wonderful man. Much love to you and yours in this difficult time.

  4. Now that is an obituary! I am glad you were with him at the end. It makes me feel ok about not making it in time. I love you

  5. It sounds like he lived a full and honest life…doesn’t get any better than that. I am deeply sorry for your loss. Thoughts and love to you and your family during your time of healing. xo

  6. I know how much you loved your dad–I’m so sorry for your loss, but that was an exceptional tribute. You did him proud.

  7. Kelli,
    Sorry to hear about the passing of your dad. He was a good man. What a touching tribute to him…..he would be very proud. Please pass on our condolences to to your family.
    Brandon Craig

  8. Kelli,
    What a beautiful tribute to such an amazing man! Praying for your family during this time. I have so many special memories of your family over the years at North Harrison. God Bless!

  9. Wonderful tribute to his life, I was there for all of it and loved him for it!!! Thanks Kelli!!!

  10. What a wonderful tribute and letter. My folks Loland and Ehel Mae where next door neighbors. They couldn’t ask for better neighbors! They loved your family country music! I always enjoy Billy and Lisa at the Wagon Wheel. They always add so much! I was sadden to hear about Your dear Dad. Sending much sympathy. Thinking of you all!

  11. Kelli,
    This tribute to your father is so touching. It was obvious that your mother and father were soul mates. I also had the priviledge of laying beside my father as he left this life; I agree, “profound experience”. I am so sorry for your family’s loss.

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