KELOWNA – The flag at Kelowna’s city hall hung at half-staff Saturday, as the city remembers one of their own. Bill Bennett, who lead the province for over a decade, died in Kelowna on Thursday at the age of 83.
His family put Kelowna at the center of provincial politics for years and now that Bennett has passed away tributes are pouring in from his hometown.
“He is perhaps the best premier the province has ever had,” says former Social Credit party MLA Cliff Serwa. “His constituency was the whole province of British Columbia. He was dedicated to it. He spent money like it was his own money.”
Now Bennett is being remembered for his fiercely competitive nature, sharp wit and intelligence.
“He could figure out something while you were talking and he would have an answer by the time you were finished,” says Ken Harding, who worked with Bennett at the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce.
Bennett’s son Brad spoke publicly Saturday, for the first time since his father’s death.
“He was a great family man. We had a lot of fun as a family whether it be time up the ski hill at Big White all those years or taking family trips,” says Brad Bennett.
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Bennett also made a distinct impression on a young broadcaster who is now well know to Okangan viewers. Global Okanagan primetime anchor Rick Webber says Bennett was the first premier he interviewed when he started working in news in British Columbia in 1978.
“He was always straightforward. He was pretty accessible as things go in terms of being interviewed,” says Webber. “I talked to him often but you could never get him fired up in an interview. He was always calm and soft spoken but behind that there was this sort of steely will. When he decided to do something, even if it wasn’t popular, he would stick to his guns. He was pretty suborn.”
Bill Bennett followed his father into politics, which put Kelowna into the political limelight once again.
“Between Bill Bennett and his father before him, they kept the center of gravity politically in the valley for a couple of decades. I don’t know that Kelowna would be the city it is today or have the facilities [it has] if it wasn’t for that,” says Webber.
However, the major projects he championed stretch well beyond the Okanagan Valley.
“His real legacy is the high profiling of British Columbia to the world and that was done through things like Expo ’86,” says Serwa. “It gave a sense of enthusiasm [and] of pride in the province. His legacy translated into economic opportunities for all British Columbians.”
However, his politics weren’t popular with everyone.
“He was a really business-like premier and a lot of people remember him from that. But if you were on the other side of the political scale and if you were involved in the leftwing movement [or] the union movement, you don’t have fond memories of Bill Bennett because he could take really hard stands. There is a real mixture in his legacy of how people remember him,” says Webber.
To his son Brad, Bennett was simply a very principled person.
“He was somebody that governed his life believing that you should always try and do the right thing if you believe it is the right thing to do regardless [of] how tough that might be,” says Brad Bennett. “He certainly displayed that in politics on occasion.”
The family is planning a celebration of life for Bennett early next year.