At a memorial service for State Senator Scott Bennett (D-Champaign) on Monday, friends and colleagues emphasized his ability to make friends in a field where lasting friendships are rare.
Bennett died unexpectedly on December 9, at the age of 45, from a brain tumor. The Champaign attorney and former prosecutor had served in the Illinois Senate since 2015, and chaired the Senate Higher Education Committee.
Hundreds gathered Monday for the memorial service at the University of Illinois Krannert Center for the performing Arts in Urbana, which featured an honor guard, and the presentation of a state flag that had flown over the Illinois Capitol to Bennett’s family.
Bagpipes and drums played “Goin’ Home” at the public memorial service, which followed a private funeral service for the family.
Governor JB Pritzker spoke at the service, addressing Bennett’s widow Stacy and two children, Sam and Emma, directly, as they sat in the front rows of the Krannert Center’s Foellinger Great Hall. He said his own father had died when he was seven years old, and that he knew how the feeling of loss and grief at such times could be intense and bewildering, and that well-intentioned remarks from others provided little comfort.
“But I promise you, there will come a day when this pain eases,” said Pritzker, “especially because Scott was such a special and unique, and loving husband, and father and friend.”
A Lawmaker Who Used Humor To Make Friends
Illinois Senate President Don Harmon cited Bennett’s sense of humor, which could surface even at somber events like a funeral.
“I can easily imagine Scott looking out at this tremendous crowd and tapping me or Rachelle (Aud Crowe) or Pat McGuire on the shoulder, leaning in and saying, ‘Uh, they know there’s no free food, right?’” said Harmon to laughter from the gathering.
Harmon went on to say that Bennett used humor to break down barriers and find common ground. He said Bennett was a good, decent human being, who would be sorely missed.
“I yield my time to Senator Bennett,” said a tearful Harmon, recalling the phrases required by Senate rules during debate. “Oh, how we would gladly all do that today, if only we could. You are beloved by your Senate family. God speed, my friend. So say we all. God speed.”
Scott Bennett was not the only legislator in his family. One of his uncles, Republican State Representative Thomas Bennett, was elected to the Illinois House in 2014, and was sworn in around the same time as his nephew.
Representative Bennett remembered Senator Bennett as someone who was humble and compassionate, with a great love of people.
“He helped you feel special,” said Bennett. “He had a way to break the tension in a room and help the conversation move forward.”
Having two Bennetts from two different political parties in the Illinois General Assembly could lead to confusion on the part of constituents. But Rep. Bennett said there was no friction at family gatherings.
“Yes, when we would get together for family birthdays and holidays, Scott and I would take a few minutes to talk on state politics,” said Tom Bennett. “And then, there was family. There could be as many as 20 or 25 of us or so together, laughing and eating, telling stories and playing at least one serious Pit card game” (a game that recreates the experience of open outcry bidding for commodities).
Rep. Bennett also shared memories of Scott Bennett helping out on the family farm, his pride in getting his commercial driver’s license, so he could haul grain in a semi out to the area elevator.
“When he was on the farm during harvest, and waiting for his semi to fill up, he would send emails and phone calls to Springfield, constituents and others,” said Bennett of his nephew.
Rep. Bennett summed his nephew’s dedication to his constituents and family with words from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians in the New Testament: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not easily angered. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes and always perseveres. Love never fails.”
State Treasurer Mike Frerichs cited Bennett’s friendship. When Frerichs left the Senate to serve as state treasurer in 2015, Bennett was appointed to take his place.
Frerichs cited the old saying that in politics, there are no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests. But he said Scott Bennett was different.
“Scott was the best kind of friend, the one who doesn’t need a modifier,” said Frerichs, his voice breaking. “He was just a friend. He wasn’t a political friend; he wasn’t a Senate friend. Just a friend.”
Looking for humor in a sad setting, Frerichs joked that his friendship with Bennett hadn’t prepared him for Bennett’s friendship with many others.
“You know, I look at Scott as one of my best friends,” said Frerichs of Bennett. “And then I hear all these people talking. Apparently, I wasn’t that special,” he finished to laughter from the crowd.
Several speakers noted Bennett’s legislative accomplishments, including bills passed that allow comfort dogs to accompany children testifying in court and that created the ABLE savings program for people with disabilities.
Bennett’s Work On the SAFE-T Act
Bennett’s last legislative work was on amendments passed last month to the Pretrial Fairness component of the Illinois SAFE-T Act.
Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz noted Bennett’s work on that issue. Bennett had once worked for Rietz as an assistant state’s attorney. Rietz herself opposed several aspects of the Pretrial Fairness Act, which will eliminate Illinois’ cash bail system for defendants, effective January 1st.
“But in the end, his work starting the conversation led to significant compromise, that resolved many of the concerns, promoted justice for all involved, and protected our communities and our citizens,” said Rietz.
Speakers including Pritzker, Harmon, Frerichs, Rietz, Rep. BEnnett, Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen, U.S. Attorney for southern Illinois (and former state senator) Richelle Aud Crow — remembered the legislation Bennett helped enact.
Those included a bill allowing comfort dogs to accompany children in court, a measure creating the ABLE savings program for people with disabilities, and the amendments to the Pretrial Fairness Act.
A final memento
Before and after the service, attendees were invited to a free helping of Scott Bennett’s campaign items from a table in the Krannert Center lobby, that was filled with Bennett yard signs, plastic cups, koozies and t-shirts. Champaign County Democratic Chairman (and Champaign County Board member) Mike Ingram supervised the table, offering mementos of Bennett’s political career.
Ingram, who previously served as Champaign County Recorder before that elected office was eliminated, said he benefited as a first-time candidate from Bennett’s political advice, which emphasized transparency, and helping voters find answers to their concerns.
“He had a firebrand heart,” said Ingram of Bennett, “but he knew when to use that, and when to work with people. And he knew how to get things done.”
(This article was updated with additional material on 12/20/22 – JM)