When Edmonds-Woodway High School graduates its 2018 class on June 16, it will also mark a milestone for Vice Principal Geoff Bennett. The 65-year-old Bennett, a 20-year administrator at Edmonds-Woodway who has been directing graduates to their seats during commencement exercises for many years, is retiring effective June 29.
An Edmonds kind of kid before the term was coined, Bennett graduated from Edmonds High School in 1970. But he’s been here all his life; his roots go deep in the community.
“My parents moved here in 1954, and we lived in a log cabin at the base of Wharf Street down by University Colony,” a neighborhood just off Olympic View Drive, he said. “The cabin was really just one room, but there was a garage out back by the blackberries, and that’s where I had my bed. As the oldest of six kids, I got first choice of quarters! Later my parents moved to the big white farmhouse at the wide turn coming down 196th Street that some may remember as Mrs. Wiley’s Garlic Ranch. It was torn down years ago.”
Bennett’s late dad Chet, a Washington State University grad, was a respected Edmonds attorney and an active community leader for more than 30 years. He served as Edmonds City Attorney for decades. “Dad was everybody’s lawyer,” Geoff Bennett recalled.
With Chet Bennett leading the way, the Bennetts became a Cougar family to the core. All six siblings attended WSU, and all majored in history. Geoff’s brothers — Pete, Leigh and Rick — followed their father’s path into the legal profession. Rick set up shop in New York, but Pete and Leigh — recently joined by Geoff’s son Blair (EWHS Class of 2006) — practice law right here in Edmonds. (Geoff lost his sister Leslie to cancer in 1991.)
It was sure beginning to look like law was the family business, but every family has rebels and Geoff, along with brother Alex, felt pulled in a different direction: education. Alex Bennett’s path led overseas, where he now serves as Superintendent of American Schools in Thailand. Geoff Bennett stayed stateside, searching for opportunities with Puget Sound-area school systems.
“Teaching jobs were hard to find back in the ’70s,” he recalled. “After graduating from WSU in 1975 I managed to land a few substitute teaching gigs, but nothing solid. There was an incredible teacher glut back then, and most schools wouldn’t even accept my paperwork to apply. I tell you, it was pretty demoralizing.”
Things were still not looking up in the fall of 1977.
“It was really frustrating. I knew I wanted to continue with teaching and education, but I felt like I was hitting a wall,” he recalled. “So I sat down with my dad to talk about switching direction and heading toward law school. The school year started, and it seemed bleaker than ever. Even sub jobs were hard to find. I subbed one day in what at the time was called the Edmonds Continuing Education High School, and I honestly felt like I’d reached the end of my rope with teaching. But that same day out of the blue I got a call from Everett High School asking if I’d accept a teaching job with them, but only if I’d also agree to coach girls JV basketball (which I’d never done before and knew next to nothing about). Well, heck yes! Looking back on it today, it’s kinda scary to realize that I was literally one day from leaving education and going into law.”
While the Everett job began as a long-term sub assignment, it soon worked into a regular faculty position. Bennett stayed at Everett until 1998. While there he taught U.S. history, Russian history, world history, sociology, AP American history, AP American government, coached varsity soccer, and eventually became assistant principal.
“Everett High is a totally awesome place. The teachers and administrators are wonderful, and I really loved working there,” Bennett recalled. “But after 23 years I felt I needed to be closer to my family in Edmonds. Night-time activities and coaching meant that I was commuting back and forth several times each day. I had a home with two growing boys here in Edmonds and the strain was getting to us all. One day my wife Cyndi said to me, ‘The boys haven’t seen you in three days,’ and I knew it was time to make a change.”
The Edmonds School District was about to open the new EWHS building, and they were looking for a vice principal. Bennett applied, got the job and has been a fixture at EWHS ever since.
Not one to hide in his office, Bennett — a self-admitted Type A — finds it impossible to sit still. He is a constant presence around the school, wandering through campus, showing up at sporting events and social functions, ducking into classrooms, and greeting students everywhere he goes. In addition to his vice principal duties, Bennett has served as advisor to the school’s History Club, where — in partnership with the Edmonds Historical Museum — he guided students in an extensive oral history project conducted with residents of Brighton Court and other local retirement facilities. Videos from these are available on the museum website here.
The oral history project is but one example of how Bennett’s energy and passion spills over into the community. In addition to serving for several years on the Edmonds Historical Museum Board of Directors, he helped make the critical connections that led to formation of the very successful EWHS Students Saving Salmon Club, now in the forefront of the drive to enhance and restore salmon runs in our community.
“He was the catalyst for getting this group together,” recalled Valerie Stewart, a local environmentalist who was one of the Students Saving Salmon founders. “He connected us with former EWHS biology teacher John Cooke and others who helped jump-start the club.” (See My Edmonds News coverage of Cooke’s work with Students Saving Salmon here).
Working with Cooke, the students actually discovered the remains of barnacles in the Edmonds Marsh, helping prove that it was once an estuary (salt marsh), a piece of knowledge basic to current restoration efforts. “I don’t think it’s going too far to say that by making this connection, Geoff saved the marsh,” Stewart added.
Making those connections is a big part of what Bennett is all about, Stewart said. “Many times I’d just walk into his office, tell him about an idea, and he’d say ‘Oh, I know who can help you,’ and immediately get on the phone or send out an email while I was sitting there. He’s one of those very special people that comprise the glue in our community.”
In addition to everything else, Bennett has also been an active and inspiring presence in Edmonds-Woodway athletic programs. This year, his career-long dedication to getting students involved in athletic activities was formally recognized at the annual scholar-athlete banquet, where he received the 2018 Athletic Director Award. The award was presented by Edmonds District Athletic Director Julie Stroncek, who cited Bennett’s years of tireless work, “often giving up hours of his own time, before school, at lunch and after school, contributing to the success and student life of thousands of high school students.
“Whether it’s an organized sports team, intramural basketball or soccer, or a ping pong club, Geoff is there,” Stroncek added.
Yet another example of his community dedication and willingness to help and get involved began one evening in 2013 as he was heading home from work.
“I was driving home on Bowdoin near Yost Park when I saw a car catching fire while stopped by the side of the road,” he recalls. “I stopped, ran over and had just pulled a lady out of the front seat when I heard a baby crying in the back. The baby’s seat belt was stuck, but I managed to release it, pull baby out, and no sooner got to the sidewalk when the whole car burst into a fireball. I’m so glad I heard that baby cry; it gave me just enough time to get it to the curb before the car blew.”
For this rescue, conducted at considerable risk to himself, Bennett was awarded a Citizen Service Citation at the 2013 Edmonds Police Award Ceremony.
So where does a man with this kind of energy go from here?
“I have no solid plans yet, but I’m driven to stay connected with education in this area,” he said. “First off, Cyndi and I are going to do some traveling. We’re planning a trip to Ireland next spring, and we’re already talking about other destinations. We have a cabin in Eastern Washington, and we’re looking forward to spending more time there. I’m a bit too Type A to just sit around and watch the deer though. I know I’ll end up doing something in education, something with the school system.”
Looking back over the high points of his 43 years in education, Bennett has seen a lot of change. But what sticks in his mind are the students.
“EWHS has changed a ton in the 20 years I’ve been here,” he said. “Today our students speak 44 languages (this makes it really fun), we have 120 English Language Learner (ELL) students and more than 30 Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) students. Almost 30 percent of our students are on the reduced lunch program — when I came here 20 years ago it was like 6 percent — and we’re one of only 12 International Baccalaureate Program schools in the Puget Sound area.
“The highest point for me, when I feel the greatest degree of satisfaction, is at graduation,” he said. “There’s so few jobs with a real beginning and a real end each year. Except it’s not an end — it’s the future too. I see these kids, many of whom I’ve known since they were freshmen, walk across the stage and get their diplomas. I see how they’ve grown and evolved, and just to know that I’ve been privileged to be part of that — it just fills me up. It’s a sense of satisfaction like no other.”
— By Larry Vogel