Former Assessor, County Commissioner Bill Bennett Dies At 82; Was One Of Hamilton County's Most Popular Public Figures

Saturday, December 15, 2018
Bill Bennett
Bill Bennett

Bill Bennett, who served Hamilton County as assessor of property and a member of the County Commission, has died at 82.

One of Chattanooga's most popular public servants, his experiences in a two-room schoolhouse helped hone his career.

He was one of six boys, along with one girl, born to Ernest and Mary Roberts Bennett on the Cumberland Plateau. Ernest Bennett farmed and was "an old-fashioned preacher" on the side. Bill noted in a 2014 interview, "My parents taught us right from wrong."

The training worked well as all the kids succeeded, including Ernest Jr. who became county executive of White County, Tn.

Bill remembered that the family "scratched to make a living. But, even though we didn't have a lot (in material possessions), we did have a lot (in a loving family)."

At the little school, grades 1-4 were in one room and grades 5-8 in the other. He said the teacher would give a short lesson to the few children in his grade, then move on down the line to the older kids. "You couldn't help but take in what she was teaching them," he said.

The Bennetts moved to Cookeville when Bill was 14, and he played football and basketball for the legendary Eddie Watson.

Bill studied at Tennessee Tech and, while there, he met Marguerite Cooper of Sparta on a blind date in 1957. He was married over 60 years to the one he refers to as "The Speaker of the House."

Bill went into the Army for six months, then was in the Reserves for five and a half years. A buddy there told him about Combustion Engineering in Chattanooga. Bill got a job in the engineering department, working there from 1959 to 1986.

He became good friends with Bobby Wood, and they decided to form an insurance company together. They operated Carriage Hill Insurance until 1994. Both got involved in politics, with Bobby having a long career in the state House.

Bill became active in several political campaigns and was part of "the Harrison Mafia" that included Claude Ramsey and others.

Bill was elected to the County Commission in 1980 after Mr. Ramsey moved from the commission to assessor, and he served as chairman three times. At the time he arrived at the County Courthouse, there were only three Republicans in office. He noted, "It was Gary Gerbitz, Claude Ramsey and me."

Though he was the sole GOP representative on the commission, he recalled, "We had a good group that worked together with County Executive Dalton Roberts."

He was proud of his involvement in industrial parks, extending sewers, bringing better fire protection and making ambulance service countywide. He helped get the Little Debbie Parkway built.

After winning five general elections, he again followed Claude Ramsey. When Mr. Ramsey moved to county executive, Bill was named assessor by his fellow commissioners in 1994.

He was statewide Assessor of the Year in 1996 and president of the state association in 1999-2000. He was presented a lifetime achievement award by the state assessors in 2009. Two years later, he was appointed by Governor Bill Haslam to the State Board of Equalization, where he is currently chairman.

In August 2008, Bill faced his biggest challenge when he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. His daughter, Lee Ann Roane, is with Abbott Laboratories in Tampa, and she urged him to receive treatment at the Moffitt Cancer Center there.

Bill went from 185 pounds down to 129 during his struggle with the disease. He said, "It zapped me down, but by the grace of God and many prayers I was declared in remission in February 2009." He said, "My family, wife and children were champions in my support, along with my church and so many friends." Son, J.B. Bennett, who is now a Circuit Court judge, made many trips to Florida with him for the treatment regimen.

Another son, Brad, formerly did research at the University of Virginia. His wife, Kathleen Pridgen, was a doctor at the University of Virginia Hospital. They now live in Birmingham, AL.

Granddaughter Dottie Bennett "is our Miss America," Bill declared in the 2014 interview. He afterward had a grandson, Thomas William Bennett and another one is on the way.  

The Bennetts were active members of Lake Hills Church of Christ for almost half a century.

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