Remembering Theodore Bennett, ‘Greatest Cheerleader’ For I-86
When former Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli first entered politics nearly four decades ago, Theodore “Ted” Bennett was already a veteran.
He just didn’t think of himself as a politician.
Instead, Bennett — one of only a few Democrats on a Chemung County Legislature dominated by Republicans — ignored the R or D next to a lawmaker’s name and focused on ways to improve the lives of county residents, Santulli said.
“When I was elected to the Elmira City Council in 1983, Ted was the legislator in that area. I’ve known Ted for years. He was the most nonpolitical person I ever met,” he said. “Ted wasn’t interested in what party you were. Ted was interested in developing relationships and working with people to take on projects, and making change.”
Bennett, who served as a member of the legislature for 40 years and was also chairman of the Interstate 86 Coalition, died Oct. 14 at the age of 90.
A lifelong Elmira resident, Bennett graduated from Southside High School in 1949 and spent two years in the U.S. Marine Corps before embarking on a 38-year career with New York Telephone, according to his obituary.
He married his wife Helen in 1955 and they were married 55 years until her death in 2011.
Bennett won a seat on the Chemung County Legislature in the mid-1970s and represented the 10th District until he retired in 2014.
From 1995 until his retirement, he was also the minority leader of the legislature.
Fellow Democrat Kevin McInerny was also part of that small Democratic minority, and he remembers Bennett always being willing to put political differences aside and work to improve Chemung County, especially regarding infrastructure and transportation.
“With Ted, it didn’t make a difference if you were a Democrat or a Republican. Ted worked with anybody,” McInerny said. “He was a leader. He was respected. He was diligent. Without question, he had a great relationship with the Republican leadership. He stayed on with the I-86 Coalition for some time after he left the legislature.”
Bennett was instrumental in pushing for the completion of several infrastructure projects, including the Clemens Center Parkway arterial through Elmira and the Sullivanville Dam in Horseheads.
As chairman of the I-86 Coalition, he was a tireless advocate for the conversion of state Route 17 to an interstate highway from Erie, Pennsylvania through Chemung County and beyond.
“His passion was infrastructure. He was the greatest cheerleader ever for I-86,” Santulli said.
“I always appreciated and welcomed the opportunity to work with Ted through the years on many local projects to help improve and strengthen the economy, environment, and infrastructure of Chemung County and our entire region,” said state Sen. Tom O’Mara, R-Big Flats.
“His leadership and steadfast commitment to the completion of I-86 made lasting contributions and kept it moving forward,” O’Mara said. “As a longtime public servant, a proud veteran, and an outstanding family man, friend, and neighbor, Ted will long be remembered for making a great difference.”