Journeys through Faith and Time

Department: 

The following text is an assemblage of excerpts from a public presentation that Lee and Asia Bennett made to the Horizon House community on June 4, 2017. For the complete text of their presentation, see: westernfriend.org/media/faith-life-story.

Lee: Asia and I were both born in 1933, and being Quakers has helped shape both of our lives.

I grew up in a Quaker family. My mother was descended from a line of Quakers going back in Philadelphia to prerevolutionary times. Every Sunday we got dressed up and drove eight or ten miles to the Lansdowne Friends meetinghouse. During the war, this was one of the few times the car was used. The first-day school program there was like what I suppose many Sunday school programs are: Bible stories, coloring pictures, maybe some singing, playing games, etc. Later, in high school years, I had some very engaging first-day school teachers who covered the Old Testament and some applications to current events in the Middle East, Europe, and in America, taught by older businessmen and college professors.

For my first ten years, we lived in a Philadelphia suburb occupied by owners and renters from a wide variety of backgrounds, economic levels, national origins, and religions. It was situated near the fall-line of Cobbs Creek, and from an early age, I could explore the beech woods and the small dams and abandoned structures of former industrial periods along the creek. My maternal grandmother had a small farm in the rolling hills north of Baltimore, and I often spent much of my summers exploring the countryside there, while she came to live with us during the winter.

My mother was a very intellectually able woman but, as was the custom of that time, devoted her life as a homemaker. My father was an electrical engineer working for the Westinghouse Company, selling large propulsion machinery for ships and power generation machinery for electric utilities. That afforded me the occasional opportunity to visit ships and power plants.

Asia: When I was six years old, my family moved to Haverford, Pennsylvania. A colleague of my father’s found us a house to rent and introduced us to the little Friends elementary school and meeting. My mother’s family was Southern Baptist, my father’s Southern Methodist. They were essentially religious people, but had moved long away from those Baptist and Methodist roots. They recognized Friends as a welcoming place for our family.

My parents were both born in 1898 in the rural South, and they had to work hard and long for their educations. My mother persisted in her doctoral studies in genetics and embryology at John’s Hopkins University, but finally relinquished her ambitions, and devoted herself to motherhood and support of my father’s career. He was a marketing economist – creative, influential, and eventually a distinguished professor at the University of Pennsylvania. They gave their children many opportunities that they had never had.

I started first grade in the Haverford Friends School, which offered a tender, encouraging environment. Our family became actively involved members of the meeting. During the war, the meeting hosted a program welcoming refugees from Nazism and helped their resettlement. Some of these people lived with us for a time, and others became close family friends. Their stories shaped my understanding of the world beyond my secure and privileged life.

Lee: In 1944, we moved to a larger home in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. We attended the Quaker meeting that met on the Swarthmore College campus, which included many active, interesting members from the faculty and town.

My interests in the physical sciences and mechanical arts were encouraged and developed during those years. Almost all students in Swarthmore public schools were college-bound. I chose to attend relatively nearby Haverford College to study physics.

In those days, Haverford College was a Quaker liberal arts college with a student population of about 400.  Attendance at a midweek Meeting for Worship was compulsory. The early part of my freshman year at Haverford was marked by my frequent use of the extensive Quaker library in preparing my application as a conscientious objector to war. This was during the time of the Korean War, and while my position was well documented and was endorsed by well-recognized members of my Friends meeting, the local draft board was not inclined to recognize my position. This began a controversy lasting more than a dozen years before being only partially settled in my favor.

Eventually, I was one of three physics majors graduating in my class (all still living!). After graduation, I took a position at the research laboratories of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

Asia: My high school years were spent at Westtown School, a coed Friends boarding school west of Philadelphia, founded in 1799. Early Quaker schools were founded to give both boys and girls instruction in “all things useful and necessary.” In 1949, Westtown had a large rural campus – with orchards and a dairy farm – and still offered courses in agriculture. During senior year, my roommate and I had great times volunteering in the dairy, washing udders and strip cupping cows. Students made applesauce in autumn and boiled down maple syrup in the spring. We attended meeting for worship on Thursday and Sunday mornings, and we studied Bible and Quakerism along with math, physics, biology, Latin, French, German, History, and so on. We had Quaker teachers, some who as conscientious objectors had done alternative service during the war or gone to prison as resisters. As an idealistic young person, impressed by the examples of my teachers and through their teaching, I began to ponder what it means to be a member of the Religious Society of Friends. I wanted to live up to Quaker ideals, without having any clear understanding of how that might direct my life.

I started at Bryn Mawr College in 1951, not far from home. For freshman year, I lived on campus and then, to save money, at home. Lee and I met at a freshman mixer in my dorm. We were both rather socially inexperienced young people who shared a group of college friends, several of whom had been my Westtown classmates. Discovering that we were both Quakers may have given us something to talk about at that first meeting. We quickly became a couple and married halfway through sophomore year. Our parents were distressed by our early marriage, but generously supportive. We lived in turn in our parents’ homes while Lee finished college. I subsequently dropped out before our first son was born. Looking back, I am moved by our parent’s gracious support and truly wish that I had been more openly grateful to them. The gifts they received in return were three much loved grandchildren, all born before my father’s early death at the age of 67. My mother lived long and enjoyed much loving interaction with all her grandchildren.

The next years involved motherhood and caring for our young family while Lee worked and started graduate school. I was fortunate to have a job assisting a gifted preschool teacher in the Haverford Friends School, an apprenticeship that served me well later on.

Lee: I should probably explain that, during the Nineteenth Century, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia was one of the major scientific institutions in the world. After World War II, the Franklin Institute continued on as a research laboratory. After graduating from Haverford College, I worked for four years in the solid-state physics laboratories at The Franklin Institute, developing new semiconductor materials with special thermal properties.

I also completed a Masters degree at Temple University during that time and developed an increasing interest in crystallography. In looking for a place to pursue that interest, I was again brought back to Bryn Mawr College, which has one of the great mineral collections in this country. I undertook a program there in both Geology and Physics, leading to a PhD. 

In the spring of 1960,  I received a call from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, offering me a summer internship on a cruise going to the Norwegian Sea. I had little real idea where the Norwegian Sea was or its significance at that time, but I immediately accepted. This began a new phase of my life.

My first cruise with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was on the R.V. Chain (a research vessel) in the summer and fall of 1960. My group’s particular interest was looking at acoustic reflections from geological structures beneath the bottom of the ocean. Such research ultimately helped lead to radically new understandings of the way the earth’s crust and mantle work.

Over the next five years, my time was split between Bryn Mawr and Woods Hole. Eventually, I was offered and accepted a faculty position in Oceanography at University of Washington, and we moved on to Seattle.

Asia: When we moved to Seattle in 1966, a fortunate introduction to The Little School led to a good educational experience for our two younger children and a teaching job for me. During the next five years, I finished a degree in psychology at the University of Washington and accepted additional responsibilities at The Little School.

Our family was welcomed by University Friends Meeting, and Lee and I became active in that meeting and with the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) regional office, which was housed in the meetinghouse.

The Seattle office of AFSC was founded in 1942 to both assist Japanese Americans and to protest their internment. In the 1960s, AFSC in Seattle supported establishing the United Construction Workers Association (UCWA) for workers of color in the building trades.

My committee roles with AFSC in the late 1960s led to a couple of years as program staff. When the Regional Executive Secretary left, I was chosen to fill his place, the first woman appointed long-term to head a regional office. At that time, the AFSC had ten regional offices in the United States and international work in Southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, as well as in Washington, DC, and at the United Nations. It employed about 450 staff members, not counting nationals working in their own countries. And of course, every program was supported by and accountable to volunteer committees made up of Friends and other people with particular interest or expertise. In Quaker terms, the Service Committee was – and is – a big deal. My twenty-one years with the AFSC were the most challenging, at times exciting, and most deeply satisfying years of my professional life. I was privileged to work with many extraordinary and devoted colleagues and to participate in much creative and effective program work.

In 1978, I was appointed as Personnel Secretary, or head of human resources, in the national AFSC office in Philadelphia. It seemed a good time to move back to be closer to Lee’s father, his mother having died, and to my mother, who was living alone. We wound up moving into his family home in Swarthmore and my mother came to live with us. Two years later, in 1980, I became the first woman to serve as national and international Executive Secretary of the AFSC (now called General Secretary).

My work included occasions for visiting programs in the United States and abroad. Sometimes, when such visits could be coordinated with international Quaker gatherings, Lee was able to go along. Together we traveled to various interesting places: Western Kenya, Zimbabwe, Japan, China, North Korea, Mexico, Honduras, and others. We represented AFSC at the Jubilee celebration of the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway. The Service Committee and the British Friends Service Council shared the prize in 1947 for work on behalf of refugees in the two world wars. The citation reads
“. . .  from the nameless to the nameless”.

Lee: Back in Philadelphia, I again joined the staff of the Franklin Institute, this time to work in its museum. One of the institute’s endeavors was the sponsorship of school Science Fairs. I was quite surprised at the level of sophistication that some young students were able to exhibit in the design and execution of complex experiments. The Fairs grew to become national and international in participation. I often found it challenging to recruit panels of sometimes over a hundred qualified judges to review the students’ projects.

Asia: On retiring from AFSC in 1992, I became the Executive Secretary for the Section of the Americas, part of an international Quaker organization, Friends World Committee for Consultation. The extraordinary opportunities I’ve had to serve my faith community – in several Friends Meetings, with AFSC, and with FWCC – are of deep significance for me. My own understanding of faith has evolved over time and I have been privileged to follow the Quaker call “to let our lives speak.” ~~~