A Hard Act to Follow

Delta Winds cover 2004Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


A Hard Act to Follow

Karrie L. Bennett

The beautifully diverse quilt of humankind is intricately woven with people from every walk of life. Each thread represents a trait carried down from generation to generation. Diversity can be seen in age, intelligence, beauty, culture, lifestyle and numerous other characteristics. There are "teachers and learners," "parents and children," "lovers and haters," and the wonderfully gifted individuals known as the "Geniuses." The concept of genius means something different to every person but can be found in every culture. There are great thinkers from our past, such as Beethoven, Einstein, and Freud. The geniuses of today include Bill Gates, Martin Luther King and even Eminem.

They strive to reach different goals, but in their struggles a connection to each other sets them apart from everyone else. All of these people have one thing in common: the complete and consuming drive to succeed at any cost. With genius come many things both good and bad -- notoriety, wealth, satisfaction, and isolation, loneliness, exhaustion, and illness. Some give up everything for the "cause," even their lives. Geniuses become so devoted to what they are doing that it envelops them. Many people will never have the chance to meet someone of true genius, but I had the distinct honor of being related to such a person: my father, Walter P. Bennett.

My father was a genius. He did everything in his life with pride and determination. In fact, he set his bar so high that at times he could barely meet his own expectations. I'm not sure if people of genius make a conscious decision to be this way or if it is an innate characteristic. Perhaps it is a combination of both. However, I do know that my father was driven by some unseen force to surpass even his own boundaries. In all the things my father did in his very short forty-three years, he shone brighter than anyone around him.

He enlisted in the United States Army. Determined to be the best, he excelled at every aspect of his military career. Honorably discharged as a corporal with special training as a paratrooper, he re-enlisted for another eighteen months in order to get a college fund. Once he left the army, he married my mother and set out for college.

He started small, enrolling in Camron Junior College in his hometown in Oklahoma. But he yearned for more. He showed such determination in the field of mathematics that he received a scholarship to Colorado College. His life plans were to be a high school math teacher and football coach. While at Colorado College, my father excelled academically and was noticed by many of his faculty and administrators. As a Phi Beta Kappa, he graduated second in his class, with two bachelor degrees, one in mathematics and the other in physics. It was at this point that his life took another turn, a turn that would eventually kill him. He was offered a full scholarship to study health physics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He jumped at the chance. He was completely driven. He no longer wanted to teach; he wanted to be a Health Physicist and he would do anything to succeed.

In Nashville, my father continued his ever-growing knowledge. My mom was their financial support, working as a receptionist at a small recording studio. Nashville was a hot spot for new talent in country music. It was at that small studio that she met "The King," Elvis Presley. To my mom, this made all of her hard work worth it. While my mom was meeting legends, my father was becoming one -- to me at least -- although I wouldn't be born for a few more years. As always, my father threw himself into his education at Vanderbilt, but he also found time to play on the football team there. He excelled at both and graduated with honors with a master's degree in health physics. Now my parents' future was set.

This was a wondrous time for both of my parents; they were starting a new life. My mother was looking forward to children, and my father wanted to change the world. I often wonder if they would have changed the course of their lives if they could have seen their future. If they could have known that my father's passion for his career would eventually cause his death, would they have changed anything? I would like to believe that if he had known he wouldn't get to see me grow up, he would have made many changes. But in all honesty, I'm not sure because the mind of a genius is far too complex for me to comprehend.

My parents embarked on a new life in Idaho Falls, where I was conceived and where my father received his first massive dose of radiation. He probably knew that he had been exposed, but he didn't stop working. My parents moved to Las Vegas where my father continued his career as a health physicist and my mother gave birth to me. My father also continued to receive various amounts of radiation at the Nevada Test Site. As my father was making a name for himself in the world of nuclear physics, he was slowly dying. My parents wanted to find a perfect environment in which to raise me and soon decided that Las Vegas wasn't that environment. We moved to what I consider my hometown: Livermore, California.

Livermore was a very safe, semi-wealthy suburban community in the Bay Area. The town offered many things to our young family, such as friends and a wonderful new church that kept both of my parents busy. We settled into our custom built, three bedroom home and lived a very peaceful life. As it turned out, I would be my parents' only child. I realized early on that my father was a workaholic because he wasn't home very much, or at least it seemed to me that way. My father was so very driven that it wasn't long before he was promoted to the position of Senior Health Physicist in charge of the Hazards Control Department at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. This prestigious position made my father proud but also put him in a harmful setting. In charge of any nuclear accident cleanup, he would be sent all over the world, gone for weeks or even months at a time. I started to realize how important my father was, but I didn't know that I would only have three more years to spend with him.

He made many classified missions for our government. When he came home, he would bring us wonderful gifts from the regions he had come from. That was our only clue as to his whereabouts. Every one of these "missions" further exposed him to radiation. We took family vacations at least twice a year, but my father's work was his priority. He wanted to find a safe way to dispose of nuclear waste and he eventually did. He spent much of his time at work developing a nuclear waste containment center that would later be named after him, "The Bennett Bucket." The Bennett Bucket, used in the 1960s and 1970s, was very successful.

My father compromised a lot to achieve his goals; he gave up his time with his family and his friends, and he gave up his life. In 1972 he was diagnosed with leukemia and lymphoma. He went through rigorous treatments of chemotherapy and, ironically, radiation treatments. This, coupled with three surgeries, still couldn't save my father's life. Although he was gravely ill, he continued to work. His condition worsened until he had to be hospitalized permanently. I could no longer see him. His kidneys eventually failed, and he lived on a dialysis machine and life support system. He became weaker and weaker. We had lost so much time and now there was no time left. In the end he died exactly as he lived, alone. I didn't understand all of this until I was much older, but when I did begin to understand, I realized that the life of a genius wasn't any life at all. My father spent most of his time among people he worked with, not the people he loved and who loved him back. He was driven to succeed and he did.

My father was a prominent man in our community and very respected by his peers. We had to have three funerals just to accommodate all of the people who wanted to pay their respects to him. My father left behind a legacy of knowledge. But he died alone, and I think he wanted it that way, for that is the way of the genius, and this is something most people will never understand. Every day I think about my daddy and miss him. Sometimes I find myself so driven by my own desires that I have to stop and remember that it takes a very special person to fill the shoes of a genius. I don't want to be that person. I still wish we could have had more time together, but the genius takes that time away from us all.