Dery Bennett – A great leader gone

Dery Bennett, former Executive Director of the American Littoral Society, mentor to a generation of environmentalists, and inspirational leader of the coastal environmental movement on the New Jersey Shore has died.

D. W. Bennett, known to all as “Dery”, 1930 – 2009

We meet few persons in life of whom we know in their presence, this is someone great. Such a man was D. W. Bennett, for a generation Executive Director of the American Littoral Society and known to all as “Dery”.

Dery was the point of the spear for every New Jersey coastal environmental issue from the sixties through the turn of the century… DDT, the Tidal Wetlands Act, CAFRA (the act governing coastal development), land conservation, ocean dumping, and your back yard. Dery was president of Clean Ocean Action, which he founded along with Cindy Zipf and a few others — Scottie Franklin, Bill Feinberg, Tom Fagan –- during its whole existence.

Dery’s rapport with Cindy Zipf was rare and world-changing. One of Dery’s best day’s work was when Cindy walked in the door — a moth coming to the light.

Dery was mentor to a generation of Jersey shore environmentalists. He was the guy you went to for advice. He was the man whose standard you tried to live up to. There was no one else. Dery did not just talk the talk.

As the environmental movement evolved from its informal seat-of-the-pants beginnings to its current more structured and bureaucratic existence, Dery didn’t.

Some people – always wrongly, and usually with something on their consciences — called Dery extreme, but nobody thought of calling him a hypocrite. Dery said people should not be living on barrier islands, and he did not. Dery laughed at fancy and drove an old pickup.

Dery once remarked about a developer’s noisy attorney, “He seems to think if he says it loud enough it will become true.” Dery never tried to make any idea come true with decibels. He set examples or quietly offered thoughts.

The fact of being a dissenter from much of what happened in his time did not make Dery bitter. He felt more comfort in being right than in being approved. Only a few among those devoted to changing the world are able to maintain his level of intense dedication with so little anger. I never heard Dery use the word ‘outrage’. He would walk you up to the edge of it, and then, as a meaningful silence hung in the air, allow the listener to choose her or his own values.

That may give a hint as to why so many are so moved by Dery’s life and passing. It did not matter if you were a senator or an assemblyman or an executive director. The fact that you were a created human being commanded his full attention.

Often when driving south on the Garden State Parkway, I have wondered how many of the seashore-bound, traffic-trapped pilgrims around me ever heard of Dery Bennett or of what he has done to keep the shore a place worth traveling to. Statues are built to honor the wrong people. Leave the marble where it lies.

Dery was the antithesis of bureaucracy, of false language, and of pomp. His environmental movement was not about planning commissions, stakeholder groups, ribbon cutting, rule-making, or parts per billion. Dery’s very presence was a rebuttal to all that. Sanity walked in the door with him. Dery’s demeanor — and his humor, which was part of its essential fabric — brought each of us more down to earth, or to improve the metaphor, more down to the sea, which is where life began and begins.

While many recall Dery’s sense of humor, let us not forget what happened when he turned that sense of humor off. When Dery spoke while looking you in the eye, his words carried weight.

Dery was about living honestly and treating living things as if they matter.

On any chosen topic Dery had a command of the larger concepts and of words. And yet he was far more interested in the tangible practicalities. When a meeting became too conceptual, he would ask, “Have we saved any fish yet?” Dery understood more keenly than others that without objects and without animals there are no concepts and there is no fascination. A relative once told me with a smile, “Dery thinks Moby Dick is a book about a whale.”

Dery loved to fish, eat clams, and walk the beach. He liked to put the needle into people. He did not like neckties, and he especially did not like shoes, which came between him and the earth — the earth whose fate he changed.

I miss the world his presence generated.

William deCamp Jr., President
Save Barnegat Bay

* * * * * * * * *

The Star Ledger portrayed Dery’s spirit well.

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