It will be impossible to drive along Brush Street or Oakland Avenue just north of Grand Boulevard and not be reminded of Dolores Bennett’s easy smile and warm Southern drawl.
The founder of the North End Youth Improvement Council and its leader for more than 40 years died on February 6.
She was 84.
I met Mrs. Bennett during the mid-1990s while she and I were staffers in the office of Detroit Councilwoman Brenda M. Scott. The Tennessee-born woman with a grandmotherly demeanor was one of our team’s community liaisons, someone who we relied upon to impart keen insight into what the streets were saying and thinking. Fact is, her highly regarded counsel was sought be many, from city hall to community centers, from boardrooms to the boulevard.
Last spring, public relations executive Charlene Mitchell Rodgers approached me about helping Mrs. Bennett write a memoir. After many decades of service to her community, she was ready to document her story. We met at her home on King Street and a group of us discussed the project. It was clear as a bell that Mrs. Bennett had thought it through: the people, the events, the order in which they would be positioned—even the book’s title. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a follow-up meeting. I suspect that Mrs. Bennett, her family, and other advisors were finalizing various aspects of the project.
Her contributions are known to many. During the late 1970s, Delores Bennett became a member of the Wayne County Board of Commissioners. She defeated Conrad Mallett, Sr., a formidable incumbent who had previously worked as a top aide to former mayor Jerome P. Cavanagh and was currently transportation director under mayor Coleman A. Young.
“If I had to be defeated by anyone,” Mallett conceded in 1978 “I would prefer it was Mrs. Bennett.”
It was during that period she led a successful effort to transform a gritty neighborhood park located at Smith and Beaubien streets that had become overrun with gang activity from the notorious Dirty Players, M&Ms and Dillingers. Led by Mrs. Bennett, the community negotiated with gangbangers and political leaders. The result was a new swing set, a shiny children’s slide, and a black-top basketball court. The park was named Dolores Bennett Playground in July 1977 and became an oasis for many North End children and adults, too. She saw to it that the park was always in good shape—never covered with litter or calf-high grass.
Moreover, for decades, Mrs. Bennett sponsored the annual Adopt-A-Child Christmas Program, where hundreds of people presented about 4,000 deserving children with gifts. It became a holiday season staple at Cobo Convention Center. In fact, many area elected officials such as Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Craig Strong and Sheriff Benny Napoleon as well as business and civic leaders routinely made donations to the early December effort.
“It’s early Christmas for kids receiving warm clothing, toys and bikes,” Mrs. Bennett pointed out several years ago. “Even with this economy, the spirit of giving has not been taken a back seat when kids are involved.”
Myron Wright, a single father on disability, participated in Adopt-A-Child in 2011. His children ages 3, 5, 9 and 10 were beneficiaries of Bennett-inspired kindness. “I’m struggling now,” Wright said. “And I couldn’t get them too much for Christmas this year. This is a true blessing…people helping other people.”
Delores Bennett, who was honored as a Michiganian of the Year by The Detroit News in 1988 and received a National Child Labor Committee special citation in 1992, had bouts with sickness from time to time but I always had the sense that she would be around for a long time serving the community that she loved.
God had another plan.
A candlelight prayer vigil and public viewing were held earlier this week. A “Community Salute,” hosted by Greater New Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, located at 586 Owen Street, will be held on Wednesday, February 15, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Her homegoing celebration will be held at Greater New Mt. Moriah on Thursday, February 16. It will include an additional viewing from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and funeral at 11:00 a.m.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions made to Adopt-A-Child Program, 111 King Street, Detroit, MI, 48202