Now retired and living in Austin, Texas, Rev. Bill Bennett is a highly respected Episcopal Priest and former Rodeheaver Ranch Boy. An eloquent writer and orator, Rev. Bennett is uniquely equipped to tell his own story:
In August of 1957, I went to live at the Boy’s Ranch. My name was then Milton Koonce. In 1962 the Bennett family of Palatka invited me to come live with them. I moved in with them and later changed my last name to Bennett.
My circumstance in coming to live at the Ranch was similar to that of many of the other boys. Abandoned by my mother at birth, I lived with my paternal grandparents until being adopted at the age of four by a woman who was a Pentecostal evangelist. From the first she was abusive, both physically and emotionally. Over the next eight years, as she held tent revivals across the south, occasionally stopping to pastor a church, I lived with people who knew her in Missouri, Florida, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Often I would go to wherever she was during the summer and the abuse would begin again. One summer in St. Louis I was beaten daily over several weeks and sent back to West Virginia, where I needed immediate medical attention. In May of 1957, I had just finished 6th grade in West Virginia when I went to live with her in Leesburg, Florida. After a week, the beatings began again. A month later I ran away. In July, the kindly judge in Lake County sat me on his knee and asked me if I would like to go live at a Boy’s Ranch, with lots of horses and other boys, fishing and swimming – far away from my abusive adopted mother. The offer was too tempting to resist.
The Ranch was indeed as the judge had described it – at least with regard to the horses, the St. Johns River and the other boys, but those were the early years and times were rough. The Ranch was trying to “build boys rather than mend men,” with staff that had little or no training in child development or social services, and limited financial resources.
Things began to change for all of us when Skipper and Mom Pierce arrived. They brought a level of kindness and caring we had not seen in the former directors or staff. For the first time in my life I felt like I had someone who believed in me and who saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself. During some of my more “moody teenage moments” I had tried to find my birth parents. Skipper got wind of it and called me in to ask if I would like him to help me. He did so. Even though my birth father was contacted and did not want a relationship, I was forever grateful to Skipper for seeing that need in me and acting on it. That’s the kind of place the Ranch became under his leadership.
I left in May of 1962 to go live with the Bennetts. I graduated from high school, spent four years in the Air Force, married my wife of forty-five years, had a child, worked my way through college, and attended graduate school. Eventually, I became Vice President for Management and Development at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (Episcopal) in Berkeley, California, then served as Vice President for Development at San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, California, Provost of the Episcopal Seminary in Austin, Texas and was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church. After twenty-two years in academic administration I served as Rector (Senior Pastor) of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin for eleven years until my retirement. I spend my time now playing with grandchildren, serving on local boards and enjoying life.
For me, the Ranch was an incredible blessing at a time in my life when I desperately needed safety, security and stability. It was an island in the stream. In my time there I began to grow in confidence – a task that would take many years – understand responsibility, teamwork and develop the nascent leadership skills that would serve me all of my life. I give thanks to God for Rodeheaver Boys Ranch and all that it does to give boys a chance to become fully what God intends them to be. It truly is better to build boys than to mend men.
Bill Bennett found new life and new goals – even a new name – as a result of going to Rodeheaver Boys Ranch. Today, the Ranch continues to help boys be fully what God intends them to be. Won’t you help the Ranch build boys like Bill?