William Bennett, 62, food store worker known for his urban vegetable gardens

July 18, 1996|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,SUN STAFF

On spring and summer mornings, often before the sun and his family rose, William Bennett was on his knees -- splattered with mud, drenched with sweat -- pridefully tending his vegetable garden in the small back yard of his Southwest Baltimore rowhouse.

Most years, he harvested enough vegetables to last through the fTC winter -- including Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts for nearly a dozen people -- and to give several bags to neighbors and friends.

Mr. Bennett, who died of cancer Saturday at home, considered himself the consummate urban farmer. He was 62.

"He just had a green thumb," said his daughter, Jocelyn Bennett-Frazier of Baltimore. "Anything that grew, he knew what was involved in making it grow."

Except broccoli. He tried his hand growing broccoli this year. No luck.

"It just kind of grew up and grew out," said his wife, the former Pat Burrell, whom he married in 1970. "We didn't have any success with that."

In a back yard roughly 10 feet by 40 feet, Mr. Bennett grew corn, bell peppers -- red and green -- beets, turnips, mustard greens, collard greens, cabbage, tomatoes, okra and cucumbers.

Yesterday, many of the vegetable plants were bearing fruit; Mr. Bennett had told relatives this year's crop was going to be his best ever. He last worked in the garden in May.

"He was real proud of this garden," Mrs. Bennett said. "He just knew it was going to be better than ever before. There was something about flowers and gardening, he just liked to see things grow from seeds."

Born and raised in Catonsville -- the closest he came to rural life -- Mr. Bennett graduated in 1954 from the former Banneker High School. He served in the Army from 1956 to 1957, and after his discharge went to work at Food Fair (which later became Pantry Pride) then worked for Giant Food. He retired in 1988.

He moved to the 100 block of S. Kossuth St. in the Irvington community in 1971. He began gardening shortly after he retired.

"It was really my garden at first," Mrs. Bennett said. "Then he retired and took it over. He used to always brag that his [garden] was better than mine. He used to say, 'I'm a country boy and you're a city girl.' He used to always say that Catonsville was in the country."

He had two freezers where he put up the vegetables.

Relatives recalled the time he carried a bag of tomatoes to his car to take to his daughter.

"Only thing is that when he put them in the car, he sat on them," Mrs. Bennett-Frazier said. "So we had tomato soup."

Neighbors knew when Mr. Bennett was in poor health by the amount of time he spent in the garden and the amount of vegetables he gave away. The harvest was small when he couldn't tend the garden.

Charmaine Marshall, a neighbor for 20 years, said Mr. Bennett gave her several bags of vegetable each summer.

"They were good and they were tender. Always," she said.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. today at the New Christian Memorial Community Church, 3525 Caton Ave.

Other survivors include two sons, Ronald Burrell and William Bennett; two daughters, Towanda Hodge and Ann Adams; eight grandchildren; and a great-grandchild. All are of Baltimore.

Pub Date: 7/18/96

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