Lowell Bennion, 80, is remembered most for his gifted teaching at the University of Utah (as dean at the LDS Institute and as professor of sociology) and for his tireless efforts in community and personal service.
He was the teacher who had the greatest impact on my philosophy of life. Although his writings have influenced me over the years, most important was his powerful personal example.As a student at the U., I participated in many service projects that he designed, and they made an indelible impression on my mind. I also remember him driving students home or running errands of mercy in his old pickup truck. His style was completely unaffected and down to earth.
It seems especially appropriate, then, that some of his former students decided last January to establish the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center at the U. as a tribute to Lowell's "unflagging commitment to community service as well as to his belief in social and economic justice for all." It isn't often that a person's philosophy of life is embraced and institutionalized while he is still living.
According to its mission statement, the center "seeks to involve university students, faculty and staff in service to the communities in which they live." Those who participate identify community needs, explore possible solutions and then offer "enlightened humane service."
The center's only full-time employee, director Irene Fisher, is excited about the center's potential. Otherwise it is staffed by 14 volunteers who initially receive 40 hours of training in community problems and how to deal with them.
According to Fisher, there is an unmistakable trend toward community service in the great universities today. Campus Compact, for instance, is a national organization created by university presidents and headed by Donald Kennedy, president of Stanford University. Increasingly, educators are teaching that service is an important part of what a university is all about.
In the opinion of U. President Chase Peterson, "sharing oneself" is a necessity of the full life. "No university can rest merely with the transmission of old or the generation of new knowledge. It must also help students to reach out to larger opportunities and responsibilities. That is what the Bennion Center and the university are all about - educated idealism."
Fisher has been impressed with the considerable community interest in the center's activities. She believes that one of the most important contributions has been a large volunteer corps, last year comprising 92 people, who donate one Saturday each month to carrying out some worthy project targeted by the center.
They have tackled such projects as the painting of Girls Village, an institution for troubled girls, sorting 60 tons of food for various food banks in the area and dividing into small groups and going to homes of elderly people and helping them with home or yard projects. Care of the elderly has been one of Bennion's greatest interests.
Speaking of Bennion, Fisher says, "It is his spirit we are trying to emulate, putting people first." She notes that Bennion remains a particularly humble person who is not interested in accolades. He participates in projects as a member of the board but consciously avoids any obvious efforts to pat him on the back.
The center's board is interested in the broad range of community problems and is targeting the next academic year as "The Year of the Homeless," to be kicked off by a "commitment dinner" for those who wish to do something concrete to alleviate that problem. Fisher says the center considers poverty a serious problem in Utah that affects 13 percent of the population. One Utah child in five grows up in poverty. (It is one in four nationally.)
Of the endowment goal of $1.25 million, $700,000 has been met so far through pledges and gifts. Fisher hopes that as the center becomes better known in Utah, significantly more people will contribute and volunteer to serve others, a process that awakens them to the reality of inequality and injustice.
Following the Bennion model, this is learning by doing and developing the greatest satisfaction in life, that which comes from helping someone else. I think the Bennion Center deserves our conscious support.