Willard left a lasting legacy | RecordCourier.com

Willard left a lasting legacy

by Alan Reed
Special to The R-C

Young Willard Bennett is seen here in the 1960s near his family home in Woodfords.

As the curtain goes down on one more baseball season, as well as the World Series, baseball fans all over often reflect on the wins and losses of the past season.

I'm reminded of the loss of my baseball friend, Willard Bennett, who passed away on June 15, 2017.

I knew Willard for well over half a century and there's a history behind this man that should be shared. In fact, this story might just have the makings of a legend. Will, as he was known to most, was special for a number of reasons.

He was born in Schurz on Oct. 13, 1951. The Bennett family spent Will's early years on the Northern California coast before moving back to Woodfords around 1955.

To catch a familiar phrase and say Will came from humble beginnings would be an understatement. How humble? I decided to take a look and I went back to his roots.

He was raised in the family home about a mile north of Woodfords, a short distance off of Carson River Road. Travelling east on a narrow dirt road lined with thick overgrown sagebrush, I entered the remnants of an area once known to many as Christensen's camp, his childhood home. At one time, it was a lively tract that was home to about half a dozen Native American families. The Bennett home was the first one on the left. No longer standing as it has since been reduced to rubble, but the original foot print is still there. It was small, just two bedrooms in addition to a couple of main rooms.

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Despite what many might refer to as difficult living conditions, his childhood could be described as typical. He grew up within a couple hundred feet of the west fork of the Carson River. He attended school, enjoyed fishing the Carson and was regarded as a good brother by his brothers Gilbert Jr., Millard, Dwight (Ike), Phillip and Greg, as well as sisters, Linda and Florene.

Their parents worked hard in providing for the kids. Their father, Gilbert, had a long career in tough occupations that included ranch work on the original James Canyon Ranch in Carson Valley. He also labored as a log faller in the mountains above Fredericksburg and finally, he worked the mines south of Markleeville, where he did a little bit of everything. He got on the jackhammer, did some blasting and he was a mucker, too. Their mother, Flossie was, as Ike recently described her, a real "Indian woman." She made beautiful baskets, cleaned for others, cooked and provided for her family and husband.

Like so many other young boys in America, young Will discovered the game of baseball. Over time, he turned into the best player in the area. From Little League to Babe Ruth to high school, Will mowed down one batter after another. A 10-strikeout game was normal; fourteen or fifteen K's were not uncommon. He could hit the ball, as well. The doubles and home runs, some of which were towering and possibly still flying, jumped off his bat.

Will was so good that he was named the Nevada Player of the Year in his AA division at the end of his sophomore and junior years at Douglas High School.

After his junior year, however, he essentially walked away from the game and chose to work instead. He worked for a number of Valley ranches including the Fricke and Gansberg outfits. He gave up organized baseball.

As far as getting to the next level, the opportunities to be noticed simply didn't exist to the degree they do now, especially in an out-of-the-way place like Woodfords. Scouting was different then. Our area wasn't a baseball hotbed like the central valleys of California, where good players were seen all the time.

Could Will have gone on? Valley baseball experts Wayne Brown and Cliff Simpson believe he had a shot. As well, there still exist today the legendary stories of the man (a baseball scout) in a blue suit who walked along the streets of Dresslerville on a Sunday looking for Willard … as well as travel opportunities to pitch in front of the likes of big league scouts in Arizona. Brown and Simpson attest to both accounts. Yet, for some reason known only to Will, he stayed home.

His baseball achievements were remarkable but even more noteworthy was the man he would become later in life.

After battling alcohol for many years, Will was proud of the fact that he achieved lifelong sobriety in 1984. He committed himself to God and he worked for the betterment of all those around him.

Will did a number of things in his adult life. He was a wild land firefighter. He was also a federal officer in places like Nixon, Owhyee, Sutcliffe, Schurz, as well as locally. He witnessed a lot of difficult events in his life as an officer, yet through it all, he maintained his belief in helping others, especially young Native Americans. He took many under his arm. He bought clothes and food for them, all in an effort to help them get on their feet. In my many discussions with Will, he said the reason for doing so was simple … most of these young kids came from broken families without strong role models.

In 1989, he met his lovely wife, Barbara Bill. What began as a chance invitation to her for coffee after church one day evolved into marriage on Oct. 19, 1990. He not only married Barb but he inherited five children in the process, further evidence of his commitment to those around him. Amber, Aaron, Adam, Alan and Evan are not only grateful but extremely proud of Will and Barb as these words are written today.

I delivered one of the eulogies at his service this past June and I'm still reminded of the enduring friendship I was fortunate to have with my friend "Iron Will" (my son Bennie gave Will that moniker years ago).

The country boy who threw bullets was truly a great player in his day. He was a humble man throughout his life. He was a giant on both the mound and in the game of life. He left a legacy that quite possibly is just beginning.

LOOKING BACK

Willard Darnell Bennett … born Nov. 13, 1951 … passed June 15, 2017.

Douglas High baseball highlights from The Record-Courier archives:

From the April 18, 1968 edition: The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Bennett pitched a three-hitter plus he helped his own cause by hitting a home run and double in a 3-1 win against Nye Hall (University of Nevada). He had eight strikeouts and walked only one while lowering his season ERA to 1.80. (Douglas grad and future Nevada Wolf Pack baseball coach Gary Powers was the winning pitcher over Alan Reed in the second game of that double header.)

From April 23, 1970: Bennett pitched a three-hitter with 15 strikeouts in a 2-1 win over Lovelock.

From April 30, 1970: Bennett came up short in a duel against one of Hawthorne’s all-time greats, Don Orndorff. Bennett allowed three hits in a 3-0 loss, a game in which Orndorff pitched a one-hitter with 15 strikeouts in a seven inning game.