Celebrating the joy of life

 Monday, July 06, 2015
Hugh Ralston


As we celebrate the 4th of July, and the sacrifices that set our nation on its extraordinary journey, and pause to digest the remarkable events of the past ten days – shootings in Charleston, decisions by the Supreme Court, crises in the Eurozone, it is easy to get overwhelmed with the speed of change.

I want to pause and pay tribute to someone whose local philanthropy calls out for gratitude, respect and recognition. Peter Bennett passed away this past week at the venerable age of 92, leaving behind his belief in the promise of philanthropy and the impact of a remarkable family. He had a passion for the land, for photography and was someone whose sly sense of humor reflected lessons learned over many years; Peter didn’t miss much when it came to people.

For Peter Bennett, philanthropy was “the elixir vitas – the joy of life”. It was, as he noted, a ‘win-win situation to give’, where “reaching out to help others you help yourself.” Given the people he helped over the years, his joys must have been profound.

I had the pleasure of working with his sister a decade ago, whose philanthropic passions were dedicated to books and history; her generosity established the Berry Research Library at the Museum of Ventura County. Both DeDe and her brother were beneficiaries of the Berry oil fortune, a remarkable story captured in a recent book about the founder’s rise from a peach orchard in Selma, riches saved from the Klondike and reinvested in a Kern County oil fortune. It is, in abridged words from Peter, one of the great stories of the west - of personal fortitude, leadership, and stewardship.

Peter brought his own focus and discipline to this work. Philanthropy became his passion but there was an art to it; it was not easy. A former board member of the Fresno Regional Foundation, who established his fund here in 1998, he understood the value of being discerning about his giving, and he valued the insights, expertise and experience that working with our staff brought to his grantmaking. His priority was to give to those who help poor families and children overcome challenges, and achieve a better life – and he was generous: over $10 million invested in dozens of causes and organizations, with grants for scholarships, afterschool programs, operating support, historical societies and programs that ranged from body cameras for the Fresno police department to the food bank.

I was taken with the grant to Valley Children’s Hospital, to support a project started by an Eagle Scout who identified a need for students like him for a more accessible exercise space, to help disadvantaged students get more agile. Peter Bennett’s saw not only the need but the initiative of one young man who raised $4000 on his own. Peter’s grant made the new park a joyful reality when it opened this year.

The Berry family legacy of risk, luck, determination and perseverance has been burnished by the quiet, thoughtful and dedicated philanthropy of one named after the fortune’s founder, Clarence Berry. Peter redeployed that good fortune into making this community better for more. He found great peace in the outdoors, and in the view from a horse on his beloved Madera ranch. He saw the landscape and the people, and appreciated the opportunity to do good. He used to say, “it is great to help out and give back, but it feels even better to be smart about it”.

We were privileged to learn from Peter Bennett about how smart philanthropy can make this a better place and are all the better for having been part of his joy of life. That is the legacy we are proud to carry forth into the work that call us to be done.

Best Regards,

Hugh J. Ralston
President and CEO 
(559) 226-5600 ext. 101 

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