After several decades serving on the Dawson County Board of Education, the local school system bid farewell to board member Cecil Bennett Nov. 22.
A farewell party was held for Bennett over the weekend at the board offices and, while he still has two final meetings with the board, friends and family spent the day remembering Bennett for all of his hard work.
"[Cecil] has put a lot of work into the board - many, many years. We've been talking for months and I told him that if he would serve, we'd all help him," said Board of Education Chair Roger Slaton. "But he doesn't think he should. We all appreciate him so much."
Bennett decided not to run for another term and declined this year's chair, citing health reasons.
"If my health would hold out, I'd fight [Roger] for the job," Bennett said jokingly during a previous meeting.
Over the years, Bennett has touched the lives of countless Dawson County residents, holding a position on the board of education for more than 25 years total, serving on the Pioneer Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA) Task Force from 1986-1989 and even holding one term on the Dawson County Board of Commissioners.
"I have counted Cecil Bennett my dear friend for more than 50 years," Slaton said. "I have watched him work to guide the Lord's work for the betterment of our county. His leadership as commissioner shows his ability to lead when needed to."
But his decisions in leadership have not always been easy ones, according to his colleagues.
"Cecil made some tough decisions over the past 25 years and always put the students of Dawson County first. He told me that once there was a hot topic years ago and a large crowd showed up for the board meeting so they had to call the sheriff," said board member Doris Cook. "He said during the meeting, somebody hit the lights on accident and everybody was scared to death. They escorted the board members out and made sure they got home safely."
Cook, who has served alongside Bennett for 10 years, said that it was Bennett's role over the years that has led to a decrease in those types of situations.
"Although we have been in some tense situations and hot topics in my 10 years, thank goodness, our community and the board discussed and handled [them] without having to call the sheriff in," she said. "A lot of that is because Cecil set high expectations. He has a lot of faith and in his leadership he energized those around him to be confident and motivated to build a better future for all of our students and staff."
One former student that knew Bennett growing up had a chance to work with him on the board.
"Cecil has been like an uncle to me and I know for the rest of my life I will be able to call Cecil Bennett my friend," said board vice-chair Will Wade. "He has a quiet disposition while also being consistently passionate about doing what's best for all the kids of Dawson County. He also cares about every single employee."
Wade said he still remembers Bennett being active in his school when he was a child.
"I remember him visiting my elementary school when I was a young kid," he said. "My greatest memory is how happy he was when he was visiting our school. His smile is as encouraging as it is infectious."
And throughout the years, the board members said they didn't actually think a day would come without Bennett on the board.
"I am going to miss his humor and the good stories. I told him last month, that I can't imagine him not being there with us," Cook said. "Each person on the board has to step up and help fill his shoes, if that is even possible."
Cook's sentiments were echoed by the other board members.
"He will be missed by Dawson County schools. You cannot replace wisdom love and willingness to serve overnight," Slaton said.
Long-time school volunteer, parent and Dawson County resident Karen Armstrong was elected in November to follow Bennett on the board beginning in January.
Armstrong, a native of north Georgia, is currently employed as the administration officer at the University of North Georgia's Military Science Department.
She previously held the position as the assistant registrar at the Dawson County Board of Elections and has held numerous volunteer positions, such as PTSO President for Dawson County Middle School, a founding member of Dawson County High School PTSO in 2009 and an overall PTSO member since 2006.