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John L. Bennett, electrical engineer and theater organ buff, dies

John L. Bennett was an active member of The Free State Theatre Organ Society.
John L. Bennett was an active member of The Free State Theatre Organ Society.(handout)

John L. Bennett, a retired electrical engineer and theater organ buff, died March 6 of complications from dementia at the Blakehurst Retirement Community in Towson. The former resident of Windmill Point died the day after his 88th birthday.

“John was a friendly and outgoing man who always wanted to do and be involved with something new,” said Daniel D. Moore, an electrical engineer and friend since high school days. “I went to Gilman and he went to Poly, but we had many mutual friends together and we both went to MIT.”

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John Lewis Bennett, son of Irving T. Bennett, a metallurgical engineer, and his wife, Irene B. Bennett, a longtime volunteer, was born in Rome, New York, and moved to St. Johns Road in Roland Park in 1944 when his father was appointed division manager of Revere Copper and Brass Corp.

Mr. Bennett’s interest in the theater began at an early age when he joined the Isabel Burger Children’s Experimental Theatre. While a student at Roland Park Public School, he ran the public address system.

While an "A" course student at Polytechnic Institute, Mr. Bennett was a member of the stage crew and operated the follow-spot during theatrical presentations. He also was a member of the lighting crew at the old Vagabond Players theater on Read Street.

After graduating from Poly in 1950, he entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1953 in general engineering and business administration.

At MIT, he worked on the lighting crew and served as stage manager for its Tech Shows and was an announcer for WMIT, the institute’s radio station.

“He signed the station on the air every morning at 6,” Mr. Moore said. “Programs were transmitted by wires strung from dorm to dorm. Since most of the students liked classical music, he also had the WGBH radio signal converted and clipped to the WMIT wires, which students plugged into their amplifiers.”

After graduation in 1953, Mr. Bennett was offered a job at WHDH, a new Boston television station, but “as I was draft bait, I declined,” he wrote in an autobiographical note.

He entered the Army in the fall of 1953, and after spending the first month at Fort Jay Hospital on Governors Island in New York City suffering from pneumonia, attended and graduated from the Army Signal School at Fort Monmouth in New Jersey. He was stationed in the Island of Hokkaido in northern Japan, as manager of its radar system until 1955, when he was discharged.

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Thinking the dry air in Albuquerque, New Mexico, might relieve his chronic lung problems, Mr. Bennett relocated there in 1956 when he went to work for Investment Casting, headed by Dave Sigourney, an MIT colleague.

“The company was engaged in the casting of fine metals, a new technology that engineered small cast parts used in machinery and exotic materials, and for manufacturing jet engines,” said Mr. Moore, a Blakehurst Retirement Community resident.

Also while living in Albuquerque, Mr. Bennett worked as an announcer for a classical music station.

“After nine months, he discovered that the sandstorms in Albuquerque outweighed the damp weather in Baltimore and returned,” his wife of 60 years, the former Virginia Wierum Banks, a retired administrative assistant and editor, wrote in a biographical profile of her husband.

Mr. Bennett joined Towson Laboratories, an electronics firm, where he worked with McKenney W. Egerton, an MIT classmate. “Our revolutionary achievement at Towson Labs was the design and development of the first analog-to-digital converter on the market,” Mr. Moore said.

He continued working for Bendix Corp. on Taylor Avenue in Towson after it acquired Towson Labs.

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In addition to work for the U.S. Department of State, he was engaged in the design of machinery to detect and collect data on weather and ocean currents, in the pre-satellite era, which replaced weather balloons that radioed signals back with computerized data collected by instruments that produced an instantaneous map of atmospheric and weather conditions.

Mr. Bennett earned the reputation as a “fixer” and was often sent by Bendix to affiliates and companies to repair their electronic equipment. At one point, he aborted a NASA launch of a satellite after discovering that the wrong sealing compound had been used during its manufacture.

A friend once remarked, “John can fix anything from a golf cart to an airplane,” family members said.

During the 1980s, Bendix was taken over by Allied Signal and then Environmental Technologies, from which he retired in 1991.

Mr. Bennett and his wife lived in Roland Park, where they raised their four children. After the children were grown, they moved to a stone house facing the Chesapeake Bay at Windmill Point in Anne Arundel County, five houses away from the Gibson Island gate. They also enjoyed spending winters at a second home in Stuart, Florida.

Never losing his enthusiasm for the theater, Mr. Bennett and his wife sang during the 1960s with the Baltimore Comic Opera Co., which produced mainly the works of Gilbert & Sullivan. He sang bass, and some of his favorites included “The Mikado,” “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “Patience.”

A theater organ buff both in concert and in the reconditioning of Wurlitzers as well as other organs, he was an active member of The Free State Theatre Organ Society.

“He was quite interested in organs and knew every organ around Baltimore,” Mr. Moore said. “He really knew the mechanics of organs.”

In his retirement, Mr. Bennett volunteered with the Gibson Island Historical Society, Anne Arundel County Public Library, Northern District Station of the Anne Arundel County Police Department and the Electronic Museum in Linthicum.

He received citations from the Optimist Club of Severna Park; Citizen of the Year awards from Anne Arundel County and the Anne Arundel County Police Department; and the Governor’s Volunteerism Award.

He was a member of St. Christopher’s By-the-Sea Episcopal Church on Gibson Island, and was also a member of the Gibson Island Club and the Johns Hopkins Club.

Plans for a memorial service are incomplete because of the pandemic.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Bennett is survived by a son, S. Woods Bennett of Towson; two daughters, Jane Lewis Taeger of North Roland Park and Frances Churchill Bennett of Palm Coast, Florida; and four grandchildren. Another son, David Howard Bennett, died in 2015.

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