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Remembering Roger Bennett
by Paul Heil

Another exceptional Southern Gospel music friend has made the crossing.

Legacy Five pianist Roger Bennett, who suffered with a rare form of leukemia for almost a dozen years, died Saturday morning (March 17, 2007) as a result of complications from his ongoing cancer treatment. Roger was just 48.

Back in 1979, Roger got the opportunity of a lifetime when Glen Payne and George Younce invited this young Strawberry, Arkansas, native to become pianist with the Cathedrals. Although he took a two-year hiatus away from the group (1987-1989 during which Gerald Wolfe was pianist), Roger was the Cathedrals' pianist right through the group's 1999 retirement. Then he, along with fellow Cathedral Quartet alumnus Scott Fowler, formed Legacy Five.

Those are the biographical facts. Now permit me some personal observations...

Have you ever met someone for the first time and immediately considered that person a friend? That's how I felt with Roger Bennett the first time I interviewed him back in 1980 when he was the new kid with the Cathedrals. Oh, surely the friendship grew over the years. But Roger was, in fact, the kind of person anyone would love to have as a best friend.

Roger was, of course, an exceptional pianist. In fact, Singing News readers voted him "favorite Southern Gospel pianist" for fourteen years in a row (1993-2006). But his outgoing personality on stage (and off stage for that matter) became, for many, much more of who Roger Bennett was. His piano artistry seemed almost secondary. Somehow, I think that's the way Roger wanted it, because it allowed him to communicate with people as only Roger could. His emcee role with Legacy Five provided the perfect outlet for this gift.

Roger had a great sense of humor. It was innate. But the way he exhibited it in concert was fine-tuned by exposure to the expert at this, the late George Younce. Roger could be deadly serious one moment, and then, suddenly, inject humor in such a way that the serious point he was making became all the more memorable. Examples of his quick wit often came unexpectedly, like a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky. Effective. And memorable.

Roger was an encourager. He encouraged audiences by his very presence, especially in his latter years. He was always supportive of other groups and other forms of ministry. Looking back over my interview transcripts from the past quarter-century, it seems Roger seldom failed – as part of an interview – to encourage us in our work through the broadcast. Back in 1999, he and Scott Fowler even allowed my program to be the catalyst for finding a new name for their new quartet through an on-air contest, and they visited my studio when the time came to telephone the listener who sent in the winning name.

Roger was insightful. He once told me (on mike during an interview, with Shelia in the room), "Paul's a nice guy, talented, but without Shelia, The Gospel Greats would be just another radio program." (That was back in 1985. Nothing's changed.)

Roger was still in his late 30s when he was first diagnosed with his leukemia. Lesser mortals would get pretty down about such a diagnosis, and Roger surely had his moments. But overall, Roger refused to let it get him down. Although he was totally realistic about his circumstance, he was the poster child for optimism. He remained passionate about his work, seemingly (although not literally) indefatigable, despite his health issues. His overall outlook was always positive.

Roger's was an optimism – a hope – based on faith. And Roger never allowed his faith to be diminished by the trials he was going through. In fact, Roger's faith was strengthened by his difficulties, as he frequently noted in interviews and even in concerts when he was able to travel. Roger genuinely had full confidence that no matter what happened, it was up to the Lord. Echoing the Apostle Paul (see Philippians 1:21-24), Roger often said that no matter what happened — life or death — it would be alright.

Roger knew that the Lord was in control. He borrowed an expression, "In His Grip," and routinely used it as the closing for his correspondence. He even wrote a song by that title which Legacy Five recorded.

"He has heard my heart's request,
In His grip of grace I rest."

People often forget that Roger was quite a songwriter. Amazingly for someone in his circumstances (and yet typical for him), his songs were songs of hope, of encouragement and of Christian victory. Some seem autobiographical, such as this excerpt from "It's Good To Know:"

"I've had some good days, I have a few bad days,
But through it all the good outweighs the bad.
Undeserving of His favor, yet I have a blessed Savior
Who leads me through the trials of life
While holding to my hand."

Although Roger was Legacy Five's pianist, he occasionally sang, too. On their 2003 "London" CD he sang a song, "Home Free," that, although he didn't write it, was an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come:

"Home free eventually
At the ultimate healing we will be home free...
Sometimes the good die young, it's sad but true,
And while we pray for one more heartbeat, the real comfort is in You..."

In fact, Roger wrote a song called "Healing" that was on the very last album recorded by the Cathedrals.

"If you're in the valley of the shadow of death
You think that your time is at hand
Don't think for a moment He's forgotten your name
At the crossing of Jordan true healing begins..."

When Glen Payne died in 1999, the year the Cathedrals planned to retire, it naturally hit members of the Cathedrals very hard (as it did everyone who knew and loved Glen). But Roger told me then that the outcome of that was this: "We have been so blessed with God's grace and the assurance that Glen is not lost and that Glen is more alive today than he ever was here."

And that is our consolation regarding Roger. He's had his "true healing." He is now, in an even more literal sense than ever before, "in His grip."

— Paul

PS. Please remember Roger's wife, Debbie, and their children, Chelsea and Jordan, and the rest of the family in your prayers.

The above was published in The Gospel Greats Newsletter March 20, 2007.
Copyright 2007 Heil Enterprises.  All photos original.