Longtime preservation chief retires

Longtime preservation chief retires
Carolyn Bennett
Carolyn Bennett

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Carolyn Bennett was the Foundation for Historical Louisiana's first paid full-time staff member, and after 40 years, Bennett will step down as its executive director July 31. Bennett has lead the Foundation through its adolescence to a real force for preservation in Louisiana. She balked at the word "retirement."

"I'm calling it a commencement not a retirement," she insisted.

Bennett mentioned her husband Jim Bennett retired from LSU's Creative Writing staff last year. She also has a sister, Fran Brega, who has the business know-how of her family and owns Encore Medical Education. Then there's her mother.

"Longevity is in the family," she said. "My mom is 95 and I'll be able to spend more time with her. She's living over at St. James (a retirement complex in Baton Rouge.)."

"The great thing is as one of my board members said, I'm healthy, and I'm not leaving the Foundation because someone wanted me to leave," she said looking on the bright side.

Bennett began work with the Foundation when times were different. Early on, the preservation movement was more an elitist group of people with discretionary incomes and they were interested, of course, in saving the monumental buildings first. It was a movement created by women and large. And now it is very much a grassroots movement. I see all ages, and a more diverse group and it's not just the Foundation for Historical Louisiana saying "You can't tear that down". It is now many people, many!

She still remembers the big one that got away. "I still wish we had saved the Paramount," she mourned. The pressure was on to demolish the Paramount Theater back in 1979. It had stood downtown since the early 1920s. A Subway sandwich shop now stands in the spot. Bennett said, "I still have my 'Save the Paramount' button." A souvenir for a battle she lost.

Her dream for the Louisiana Historical Foundation now is sustainability, to somehow find a continuing source of funding for the organization.

"Organizations like ours, get no federal, state or local funding. I hope there will be continuing to build the strong board of directors that we've had. And keeping the legislation that's in place and adding more to it. A lot of times people call me and say, 'Isn't there a law? Can they really do that?' And over the years I've seen, unless you've made it a legislative act, then you're not protecting your preservation priority."

Bennett had mentioned that she loves to knit and that she had formed some sort of "entity" she called it. When I searched it on the Internet, it revealed her diabolical plan. There's a big National Preservation Conference upcoming next November in Savannah, Georgia.

She's gotten permission from conference planners to organize a "Knit, Purl Preserve" with a booth at the conference center. Carolyn plans to organize fellow knitters to "knit bomb" Savannah, attacking statues with knitted clothing and scarves, park benches, lamp posts, columns and more like a Mad Knitter of some kind has struck.

Something tells me Carolyn Bennett's idea of retirement is different from the rest of us.

I had to smile when I asked her if she might write a book about her adventures in preservation. She laughed and said, "I'll just be like the guy in Savannah and write a tell-all, ya know, 'Midnight in the Garden of Good of Evil'. I have tons of stories to tell!"

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