Edward “Edder” Bennett III ’84, the first quadriplegic to graduate from Yale, passed away due to cardiac arrest last Friday. He was 57.
Bennett was born in Fredericksburg, Va., in 1959 and came to Yale in 1978. He severely injured his spinal cord in a diving accident off the coast of Connecticut before the start of his sophomore year. The injury left him unable to walk and with limited use of only one hand. He returned to Yale in a motorized wheelchair in January 1981 and graduated in 1984 with a B.A. in American Studies.
Described as an outspoken advocate for people with disabilities, Bennett was an accomplished student and banker. He worked as president of the First National Bank of Santa Fe, New Mexico, a position to which he was appointed in 2004. In his undergraduate years, Bennett revived The New Journal, a campus magazine about Yale and New Haven. He later enrolled at the Divinity and Law schools, although health problems prevented him from graduating from either.
“He was an inspirational person, a visionary leader of The New Journal, a financial leader and, throughout his life, an advocate for equal rights and treatment for people with disabilities,” said Morris Panner ’84, a friend of Bennett and the CEO of Ambra Health, a health care tech firm.
According to Andy Court ’83, a producer at CBS’s “60 Minutes” and a friend of Bennett, Bennett became a publisher of The New Journal his freshman year, but in the year and a half he was not on campus, the magazine ran out of money and ceased publication. Bennett was determined to bring it back to life, Court recalled.
“I remember thinking it was someone who had difficulty, wouldn’t be able to cut his own food, but there was no question in my mind from talking and meeting with him that he was going to start this magazine with or without me, and it was going to be successful,” Court said.
Court added that Bennett was always willing to do the “nonglamorous” work such as raising money, traveling around New Haven selling ads and setting up the board of directors. All merchants in New Haven knew him because he would sell each of them ads at one point or another, Court added.
Before the passing of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, even getting to classes at Yale was a challenge for disabled students, Court recalled. According to Panner, Bennett’s friends had to lift him up the stairs in many buildings on and off campus.
As a junior, Bennett was tapped for Wolf’s Head, a prestigious senior society. Court said the society had to install a ramp for its tomb just so that Bennett could get inside.
“I think that we were all, at college and subsequently, blown away by his ability to accomplish things despite the difficulties he faced every day,” Court said. “It’s hard for most of us to even consider the obstacles he faced every day, even just graduating from Yale College — let alone start a magazine and run a bank.”
In 1994, Bennett founded the Archimedes Group Inc. in New Haven, a nonprofit disability information organization he ran until 1997.
“[The name] was symbolic of the fact that if you have a long enough lever you can move the world,” Panner said. “And for people with disabilities it meant that with the right accommodation, they could move the world as well.”
In addition, Court said Bennett believed in having candid discussions about disabilities and ensuring that people understood that a disability was just one aspect of his life, not its defining feature.
In 1994, Bennett wrote an op-ed piece for the Baltimore Sun, arguing for the necessity to discuss disability.
“Many people have said to me ‘I would rather be dead than paralyzed,’” Bennett wrote. “We should make sure that we don’t make people believe that their lives are not worth living just because they are disabled. We are better off alive.”
As the president of the First National Bank, Bennett always tried to be as inclusive as possible and believed that the employees should have a real stake in the business, Court said, adding that Bennett was determined to bring the bank into the 21st century by updating its technology.
Both Court and Panner mentioned the multitude of people who would visit Bennett in Santa Fe. Panner recalled the “fantastic” grand dinners that Bennett used to hold for friends and their families to discuss all possible topics. Court added that as he asked Bennett’s friends for photographs after he passed away, most of the ones Court received were taken at weddings.
“I started to realize how many people’s weddings he was invited to and how often he was the best man,” Court said. “There are many people who till this day consider him their best man. He had a real profound influence on the people who were [at Yale] at the time, but also on these generations that have come since that don’t even realize how they’ve benefitted either from reading or writing for The New Journal.”
Bennett is survived by his mother, sister, two brothers and stepmother.
Bennett’s memorial service will be held on Sunday, March at 1:30 p.m. at the Rivera Family Funeral Home, located at 417 East Rodeo Rd. in Santa Fe, New Mexico.