Star Ledger on Dery Bennett

Star Ledger on Dery Bennett

D.W. Bennett
By Donna Gialanella
July 01, 2007, 12:50PM

Guiding Light
`Rare bird’ leads the charge for coastal preservation


A tall, thin man is hunched over the sink in a creaky- floored old house overlooking Sandy Hook Bay. He is barefoot and wearing torn, faded jeans; a bushy mop of whitish hair tops his head. “I’m making instant decaf,” the raggedy-looking man announces.

“Why?” his visitor asks.

“So no one else drinks it,” he replies. D.W. Bennett is his own man, even when it comes to something as mundane as the morning cup of coffee. He barefoots it up the stairs to his office so casually, you wonder if he realizes he is shoeless. His cramped office at the American Littoral Society is decorated with nature books, shark jaws, Perot for President placards, empty vodka bottles, cans of clam chowder and a bullhorn.

Careful, don’t get too close to the door jamb; there’s a fish hook dangling from it.

The American Littoral Society, which Bennett ran from 1968 to 2003, is dedicated to the preservation of coastal habitats along the East Coast. The nonprofit organization, started by a group of scuba-diving biologists in 1961, now counts more than 10,000 members. Headquartered in Building 18 at Fort Hancock, at the tip of Sandy Hook, ALS lobbies on coastal land use, development and water quality issues; works to protect water quality, habitat and wildlife, and runs educational and research programs, including the largest volunteer fish-tagging program in the country.

Bennett — former Navy diver, semi-pro basketball player, car salesman and newspaper reporter — relinquished the ALS executive director reins to Timothy Dillingham four years ago, and is now the organization’s director of special projects. But for many, he is the American Littoral Society — its conscience, guiding light and barefooted guru.

Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, another coastal advocacy group, calls Bennett “a remarkable, rare bird or, as some would say, an odd duck.”

Bennett, according to Zipf, is a “sage and leader” in the coastal and ocean conservation community. “At the same time, he’s also the prankster, firestarter and vaudevillian comedian who lightens even the most stressful moments so we can focus on priorities.”

Call him Dery The guru in question doesn’t own a cell phone and has lived in the same house, in Fair Haven, for 40 years. He drives a Dodge Dakota pickup truck with 240,000 miles on the odometer, a check-engine light that’s been on for several thousand miles, a pair of brown fuzzy dice dangling from the rear-view mirror, moldy tennis balls and dusty forks and spoons on the floor, six buckets of compost on the truck bed, and bumper stickers that leave no doubt as to its driver’s convictions:

Honk If You Don’t Exist

Invest in America. Buy a Congressman.

Sprawl Marts Suck the Life Out of Your Town

Another says simply: Boring.

That D.W. Bennett is not. Everyone calls him Dery. The initials stand for Derickson Waples. The first name sounds appropriate for someone who attended Episcopal prep school and later Amherst College. The middle name?

“The family story,” according to Bennett, “is that my mother saw it on a gravestone in Delaware.”

Sandy Hook is great for long walks on the open beach as well as shorter walks through vegetated back beaches. Park where you are supposed to, then walk away from the crowds. Remember: 90 percent of the visitors come there to swim. If you avoid the swimming areas, you can avoid the crowds. Bring a bike: best way to get away by yourself.
— “New Jersey Coastwalks” by D.W. Bennett

He was born Oct. 25, 1930, in Merion, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb. But his destiny would lie along the coast. Summer vacation meant a week at the Jersey Shore, usually Stone Harbor. The first thing Bennett would do after helping his parents carry suitcases to their rented cottage was catch a hog-nosed snake, drop it in a cardboard box and feed it toads. The day the family packed up to return home, Bennett would release the snake.

One summer while in high school, he worked on a commercial boat in the Chesapeake Bay region. Summers in college, he worked as a deckhand on a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution research vessel and also on tankers that plied the waters between Marcus Hook, Pa., and the Gulf of Mexico.

He graduated Amherst in 1952, enlisting in the Navy on July 5 of that year. He headed to boot camp in Bainbridge, Md., then was sent to officer training school in Newport, R.I. One day, there was a terse message on the bulletin board seeking volunteers for “special operations.” Bennett and nine others attended the meeting; it was presided over by Draper Kauffman, who during World War II had established the Navy Bomb Disposal School, where he trained divers and earned the title of “America’s first frogman.”

“He said, `Men, this is the opportunity of your life,'” Bennett recalls. “You’re going to be outdoors a lot. A lot of us fell for it.”

The recruits received scuba diving, weapons and survival training, plus “how to blow things up, kill people,” Bennett says.

Most of the following four years were spent reconnoitering and landing on beaches everywhere from Greenland and Baffin Island to Algeria, Lebanon and Greece, preparing for the day — it never came — when there would be an actual attack or invasion.

“A lot of it was landing on a beach and camping for four days, sitting around with the locals, spearing fish, eating fish, exchanging cigarettes and getting drunk,” Bennett says.
Bennett, left, during his time as a Navy frogman in 1955.

Shark River is the most northerly river in New Jersey that cuts through a barrier beach. The most common saltwater vegetation here is rockweed, an alga. The most common is Fucus sp., also called Neptune’s Beard. This is the weed with the bubbles; press it between your fingers when dry; it pops.
— “New Jersey Coastwalks”

In 1956, he received his discharge, returning to Merion. He got married to his next door neighbor, Barbara Bookhammer.

“I said hello, she said hello,” he recalls. “Couple years later, we got married.”

He “fiddled around” with a variety of jobs — landscaping, car salesman, door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. Then he landed a job as a reporter at the Main Line Times, covering school board meetings, writing police blotter items. He fondly remembers “the magic time when they started the presses and the whole building rumbled.”

He would later work in the Harvard University news office, in the public relations office at Corning Glass — “my only brush with the corporate world” — then teach freshman English at a community college in New York State.

In 1968, he read a Nelson Bryant column in the New York Times about the fledgling American Littoral Society. Bennett, itching to get back to the shore somehow, wrote then-president John R. Clark, asking if there were any openings. By chance, ALS had just received a grant to fund its first full-time position.

Bennett filled it, joining ALS in July 1968. His pay was modest — $15,000 — but you couldn’t beat the commute, a 20-minute drive from his home.

“Environmental stuff was just beginning to break through (in the late ’60s),” he explains. “There weren’t many environmental organizations. It was easier to organize. Used to be you could walk up and down the street with a sign and get something done. Now you have to go to court and read hundreds of pages of rules and regulations. Now there are whereases and waivers and exceptions and parts per million to worry about.”

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