Family, friends, employees and residents are mourning the loss of a man who fundamentally changed Carson Valley with his prolific and prescient business endeavors as well as his conservation efforts.
"Pioneer" was one of many words used this week to describe Don Bently, who died Monday in his Minden home at the age of 87. Other commonly invoked words were "visionary" and "brilliant."
"All the employees are obviously very sad," Carlo Luri, general manager of Bently Biofuels, said Tuesday morning. "He did a lot of things for this Valley. He was a pioneer in our business."
"He was our local Warren Buffett," said former Douglas County commissioner and Legacy Land and Water co-owner Jacques Etchegoyhen. "He had an amazing ability to look at financial matters, and that brilliance permeated everything. He also had this understanding of the value of farmland and water and what they mean to civilization."
Etchegoyhen recalled "short chats" with Bently at the Gardnerville Raley's.
"He was always intimidating. I just knew instinctively that he was 50 IQ points ahead of me," he said. "He had so much foresight that I knew we weren't in the same league."
That foresight led Bently from a tinkerer's garage in Berkley, Calif., to the high, arid rangeland of Nevada. He founded Bently Nevada in 1961 with three people, and when he sold the company to General Electric in 2002, it employed more than 2,000 people worldwide, including 1,200 in Carson Valley.
"He pioneered the successful commercial use of the eddy current proximity transducer to measure vibration in rotating machinery," read a tribute on the Bently Enterprises website. "This led to the development of data acquisition and processing systems and related services, and created the foundation of a new discipline of mechanical engineering, 'Diagnostics of Machinery Malfunctions.'"
Today, the Bently name encompasses a dozen companies, including Minden-based Bently Agrowdynamics, Bently Biofuels, and Bently Pressurized Bearing Corporation.
In 2005, the same year he built a biofuel production plant in Minden, Bently facilitated a conservation easement with the Nature Conservancy that preserved the Kirman Field in northern Douglas County. The deal enabled the construction of a public trail along the Carson River.
Etchegoyhen said he felt great admiration for the "self-made man."
"He built a business from scratch in his garage," he said. "He was the epitome of the American success story. He started with nothing, and in a couple of decades, his company was the largest nongaming employer in Nevada. It's an amazing story all around. One of the reasons I have a lot of admiration is that he obviously had amazing business acumen, but he also had this deep understanding of the long-term relationship between soil, water, food and the continuity of civilization. He could see through everything and find the fundamentals. I realize now, looking back, that I could not see as deeply as he could."
Minden resident Jim Schmid, who worked as human resources director of Bently Nevada for 25 years, said the industrialist's greatest legacy will be the opportunity he afforded others.
"Because of Don, a lot of people raised children, bought homes and were able to have very good lives," he said. "Probably the greatest legacy of the man is that he made it possible for an awful lot of people to be successful in life. What he did is give us an opportunity to succeed."
Though a hard-driver as a boss, Bently always did what was right, Schmid said. And he hopes that his successor, son Chris Bently, will carry on such a legacy.
"His focus may surprise everyone," Schmid said of the company's new leader. "He is a very smart man, and he's had a lot of mentoring over the years."
Schmid said Bently spent his golden years creating new companies and challenging the status quo.
"He could have easily afforded to recreate, to do anything financially," he said. "But that was not his interest. His interest was running a business, creating new ideas and products. Consequently, he never retired. That's who he was."
Former Douglas County Commission Chairman and Undersheriff Bernie Curtis said that from the first days, Bently created a company that was renowned in the county, state, nation and world.
"Bently Nevada was a company full of innovative ideas and had a strong impact on the history and development of Douglas County. Not only was Bently Nevada a major nongaming employer in the state, at one time, the company was the largest exporter of nongaming technology in Nevada," Curtis said. "He was an innovative and inventive thinker, and at the forefront of modern and green technology. Don was a friend to all those who knew him. He pioneered the work-at-home movement, employed an awful lot of people in Douglas County, and created a family atmosphere for all those folks."
But Bently left his mark on more than technology and agriculture. He was a champion of education.
"Donald Bently was a generous supporter and steadfast friend of Western Nevada College," WNC President Carol Lucey said in an email. "He was a major contributor to our college foundation, and was personally responsible for allowing the college to build the Douglas campus. His gift of the land on which the campus now stands allowed the college to begin a community fundraising effort to make the dream a reality."
Lucey said Bently was engaged in many facets of WNC.
"He attended many college events, enjoying the early morning 'Coffee With Carol' lectures, and was a frequent visitor to the college's Jack C. Davis Observatory," she said. "He was interested in the programs and the students at WNC, and hired many of our graduates. He also applauded the college's sustainability efforts."
She said Bently was a "scientist in every sense."
"He was interested in astronomy and sustainable agriculture, as well as electrical and mechanical engineering, and technology," she said. "Many of the faculty and volunteers at the observatory will remember him with great fondness for his wry sense of humor."
Douglas County Commission Chair Lee Bonner, a former GE employee, said that Bently transformed a GE transistor into a vibration monitoring system recognized as the best technology of its kind in the world.
"What would the Valley look like if Don hadn't moved here? We don't know," he said. "When we look at his footprint and the areas of land he was able to protect, I know that his son Chris will carry on that legacy. We look forward to working with him in the future."
Bonner said he was privileged to have known and worked with the man.
"He could see things no one else could see," he said. "He will be greatly missed. There won't be another man like Don Bently."
n R-C News Editor Sheila Gardner contributed to this story.