SALT LAKE CITY — Robert F. Bennett, a Utah native, businessman and three-term U.S. Senator turned teacher, died Wednesday at age 82.
Bennett's son, Jim Bennett, confirmed his father died early Wednesday evening in Virginia surrounded by his wife and four of his children.
The elder Bennett confirmed in February 2015 he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He leaves behind a wife, six children and several grandchildren.
Jim Bennett said Wednesday that his father initially beat cancer with aggressive chemotherapy and other treatment, but it "came back very aggressively just a couple of months ago and it had spread."
"He was still determined to be active to the end," Jim Bennett said, but his father suffered a stroke April 11 that paralyzed his left side and made it impossible to properly swallow.
"The weakness from the cancer coupled with the stroke just proved to be too much in the end," he said.
The younger Bennett said he's grateful his father retained his mental faculties throughout his illness.
"This has been a really special time for the family," Jim Bennett said. "We got a chance to visit with our father who remained mentally alert and sharp right up to the end."
The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement Wednesday, saying it's "a day marked with both sadness and gratitude as we acknowledge the passing of former U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett and reflect upon his lifetime of faithful service to his family, his church and his nation."
"The love and prayers of church leaders are with his beloved wife, Joyce, and their wonderful family as they remember his remarkable life and mourn his passing," the church statement read.
Elected officials, business leaders and other dignitaries praised Bennett's leadership and service to the state.
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Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he had "the incredible honor of serving alongside Bob Bennett for nearly two decades."
"In the Senate, he was widely respected as a wise and thoughtful leader committed to finding innovative solutions to the most difficult challenges of the day. Above all else, he was a passionate fighter for Utahns, whom were always foremost in his mind," Hatch said.
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Former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Bennett's "keen mind made him a leading figure in the Senate on issues as disparate and far-reaching as emerging technologies and federal budgets."
"He was respected by men and women on both sides of the aisle, not only for his expertise but also for his common touch, his common sense, and his commitment to uncommon virtues," Romney said in a statement.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert called Bennett "a tremendous public servant who faithfully represented our state."
"A born leader, his passion for public policy came early in life and guided his lifetime of service and civic involvement. I will remember Bob as someone who was always quick to take on an assignment and slow to take the credit once he accomplished it," Herbert said.
Interested in politics since his youth, Bennett was elected to represent Utah in the U.S. Senate in 1992 with 55 percent of the popular vote. After 18 years in office, Utah GOP delegates denied Bennett, a moderate Republican, a chance at a fourth term in 2010 at a state party convention in favor of tea party candidate Mike Lee.
Rep. Mike Lee, R-Utah, posted on Twitter on Wednesday that he was "saddened to hear of the passing of Sen. Bennett. He spent his life in the service of others
(and) endured well the trials of cancer in his final years."
Jim Bennett reflected on that political setback Wednesday, saying his dad stood tall even in defeat.
"I was his campaign spokesman in his last campaign that he lost," he said. "One of the reasons that he lost the campaign was that he wasn’t willing to be somebody he wasn’t. He wasn’t willing to compromise his principles in order to be able to be more politically viable. And he was completely at ease with the fact that he lost his election because he did so standing for the things that he believed in."
The former senator was named in January to the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics Hall of Fame, following in the footsteps of his father, four-term U.S. Sen. Wallace F. Bennett.
After leaving politics, Bennett continued on as a sought-after teacher, researcher and lecturer at the Hinckley Institute and as a Fellow at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs. He was a weekly op-ed columnist for the Deseret News from February 2011 until his cancer diagnosis four years later.
In addition to his reputation in politics and business, Bennett's 6-foot-7-inch frame meant he sometimes had trouble keeping a low profile.
Born Sept. 18, 1933, in Salt Lake City, Bennett was the son of Wallace Bennett and Frances Grant Bennett. He showed a talent for words early on, winning a "Voice of Democracy" contest at age 17 in 1950 among Salt Lake area high school students.
Bennett, a grandson of LDS Church President Heber J. Grant, served a church mission to Great Britain, laboring in Scotland, and served in the Utah Army National Guard. In 1963, he married Joyce McKay, granddaughter of former LDS Church President David O. McKay, in the Logan Temple. The couple had six children.
Bennett is a 1958 political science graduate and former student body president of the University of Utah. He returned to the U. after leaving the Senate as a resident scholar at the school's Hinckley Institute of Politics. His seminar on domestic policy issues became one of the institute's most popular courses.
Bennett cut his teeth in politics when he helped run his father's last political campaign in 1962, at one time serving as his temporary administrative assistant.
During his time in the Senate, Bennett served as a senior member of the Senate Banking Committee and was a member of the distinguished Joint Economic Committee. He was a ranking Republican for the Subcommittee on Agriculture, the Subcommittee on Energy and Water and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
As an adviser to Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Bennett gave counsel on legislative strategy and policy priorities.
Bennett was also chairman of the special committee responsible for the relatively glitch-free year 2000 computer switch.
Before his election, Bennett earned distinction in entrepreneurial and government activities. For his success as CEO of the Franklin International Institute, Bennett was named Inc. magazine's Entrepreneur of the Year for the Rocky Mountain region.
When he became president of Franklin Quest in 1984, it had just four employees. When he resigned from that post to run for the Senate, it boasted 1,000 employees and annual sales of more than $90 million.
Bennett went on to author "Gaining Control: Your Key to Freedom and Success." The book offers practical advice for gaining control and solving problems in all areas of life, ranging from business decisions to personal relationships.
His Washington, D.C., experience included time as a lobbyist and as chief congressional liaison at the U.S. Department of Transportation. He had also briefly worked for a public relations firm that had ties to the Watergate scandal.
Bennett was sometimes suspected by some media as being "Deep Throat," the long anonymous informant who blew the whistle on Watergate to reporters at the Washington Post. He always denied he played any such role and a grand jury in 1975 found no link between Bennett and Watergate.
Deep Throat was identified in 2005 as FBI Associate Director Mark Felt.
In 1988, Bennett was appointed chairman of the Education Strategic Planning Commission for Utah. He received the Light of Learning award in 1989 for his outstanding contribution to the field of education.
Bennett had also worked for Summa Corp. in the late 1970s, a development company owned by Howard Hughes, signing a number of checks for the billionaire.
When he was named to the Hinckley Institute of Politics Hall of Fame in January, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt said Bennett personifies the qualities that are required to succeed in politics and gain the institute's hall of fame status: trustworthiness, properly placed loyalty, dignity and "the ability to balance and co-achieve statesmanship and gamesmanship."
In a statement Wednesday, Leavitt said he'll remember Bennett for his service and leadership, as well as a being kind, soft-spoken, and having a "hardy laugh."
I will remember his devotion to family, his faith and his country," Leavitt said in a statement.
In January, Leavitt said the former senator knew how to do thing right thing for the state, but he also knew how to play the political game.
"I never saw (Bennett) lose his temper in all these years," Leavitt said. "His influence, tone and his manner is what gave him power."
Jim Bennett says the last days of his father's life were punctuated by what mattered most to him: his faith. After his cancer returned aggressively earlier this year, Bennett spoke about the Book of Mormon at an evening LDS Church meeting, his son said. The elder Bennett wrote about his belief in the Book of Mormon in 2009 in the book "Leap of Faith."
"He gave a commanding fireside at a church service about that book and about the Book of Mormon and bore his testimony," Jim Bennett said. "He kept saying, 'I need to stay alive for the fireside. I have to deliver this fireside.' And he delivered this fireside and it was masterful, and the next day he had his stroke. So his faith was his top priority throughout his life and that didn’t waver even in the final hours of his life."
It was an emotional scene as the family gathered around Bennett in his final moments, his son said.
"We were all standing there at his bedside. All
of his children just became a blubbering mess," Jim Bennett said. "And my mother is a rock star. My mother, she loves her husband, but she also realizes that he was in a physical situation that he wanted to leave. And she was mentally prepared for that and is setting the example for all of us."
Bob Bennett's loved ones were profoundly affected by the outpouring of love for the former senator, according to his son.
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"The family is so grateful to see how much he was loved. We loved him. But it touched our hearts to see how much everybody else loved him too," Jim Bennett said. "Even in his weakened state, he could talk to us and he could listen to us. We spent most of (his final) days reading to him messages that were pouring in from all over the place, and every single one of them would bring a tear to his eye."
Bennett's family plans to hold two funerals. The first will be Tuesday in Arlington, Virginia, and the second in Utah. The date and specific location for the funeral in Utah were not announced Wednesday.
Contributing: McKenzie Romero, Ben Lockhart and Dave Cawley