June 13, 2006 — Former Sen. and Police Lt. Gregory Bennerson was remembered Tuesday as a caring friend who loved people just as much as they loved him.
Bennerson died in the early morning hours Tuesday at Juan F. Luis Hospital from complications due to asthma.
The 46-year-old Bennerson had an especially busy schedule recently. He had met Monday night with campaign workers and had planned to dance this Thursday at the University of the Virgin Islands on St. Croix as part of Folklorico, a group of dancers of mostly Hispanic descent. On Saturday he was to formally announce – at Mencho's Restaurant – his third bid for a V.I. Senate seat. Last Sunday friends, families and supporters gathered at Pier 69 to heap praise on him during a cocktail sip at Pier 69, and days before was glad-handing supporters and other Democratic stalwarts like former presidential candidate and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean at a party function held on St. Thomas.
A 25-year veteran of the Police Department, Bennerson was chief of detectives of the Criminal Investigation Bureau, a former supervisor of the Forensic Identification Unit, and a certified firearms examiner who was often called to testify as a firearms expert at local trials.
He served as vice president of the Boys and Girls Club Board of Directors, vice president of the Central Labor Council, president of the St. Croix Volleyball Association, and was a volunteer trainer for the Women's and Men's coalitions.
He was also a member of Rotary West St. Croix, Gentleman of Jones and the National Eagle Scouts of America.
On Tuesday, colleagues, government officials and residents throughout the territory expressed shock and deep sadness at the news of his untimely death.
Bennerson will be mourned by his longtime companion, Carmen, six children and two stepchildren (Gregory Jr., LeNina, LeAnna, Julien, Daniel and Sheniece Bennerson and Sven and Quianna O'Reilly), members of the V.I. Police Department and numerous friends and other relatives.
His death came within hours of his colleague, Police Cpl. Sheila Middleton.
Condolences poured in Tuesday for both officers as news of their deaths spread.
Sen. Ronald Russell perhaps put it best. "This is a true loss for all of us and a sad day for St. Croix," he said in a statement offering condolences to the families of both officers.
Middleton, who many knew as head of the Neighborhood Watch Program, died of a heart attack. Earlier this month, she officiated over graduation ceremonies for more than 700 elementary students who graduated from the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program. She was a teacher with the program since its inception 14 years ago.
Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards said that both Bennerson and Middleton were "true soldiers in the fight against crime in the territory.
"We have lost two of our very own heroes who served their community unselfishly. Their untimely deaths are a blow to the police department and a tremendous shock to this community," Richards said. "We are indeed grateful for their many years of service to this community and to the territory."
Richards, who served with Bennerson in the 23rd Legislature, said he regarded him as a friend.
"Lt. Bennerson had a deep desire to serve his community and was even considering another run for the Senate this year," he said. "Lt. Bennerson was a man of integrity who was always willing to commit himself to improving the Virgin Islands."
Gubernatorial candidate John DeJongh also issued a statement on the deaths of Bennerson and Middleton. "The passing of these two dedicated individuals is a loss to St. Croix and the Virgin Islands," the statement said. "Gregory Bennerson and Sheila Middleton served the people of these islands long and well. They will be missed, their service will be remembered."
V.I. Waste Management's Stella Saunders still couldn't believe that her longtime friend and college classmate would no longer be calling just to inquire whether she was smiling. A mutual friend, she said, came to her home shortly after 5 a.m. Tuesday to deliver the dreaded news when she couldn't be reached by phone.
"I'm glad I couldn't be reached by phone," Saunders said of the devastating prospect of hearing the news via phone.
She said she had seen Bennerson just hours before when he met with campaign workers.
"What I will remember about him is that when I was having a bad day, the phone would ring and it would be Greg and he'd say 'You're on my mind today. Is everything OK?' and then he would ask if I was smiling after some encouraging words."
Saunders said that Bennerson, whom she's known for 26 years, always put others first.
"He was always there when you needed him and he never turned you away no matter what was going on in his life or his job," she said. "He believed in V.I. youth and often assisted with the Police Athletic League. He was like a stepfather to my children and he himself had many moms."
One of those moms was Pier 69 owner Eunice Tranberg.
Tranberg was too distraught to speak Tuesday, but friends of Bennerson who had gathered at Pier 69 to console her said that she often referred to him as her son and that she would always remember him fondly.
Bennerson, an accomplished steel pan player and a man who held scores of leadership roles at local schools, was planning on using his campaign to further help children at this weekend's Sunset Jazz in Frederiksted.
Friends said that he had just established a scholarship which would be administered by the Frederiksted Economic Development Association. Attorney Candia Atwater was among the first to donate $500, and this weekend 500 campaign T-shirts were to be distributed at Sunset Jazz, where donations for the scholarship fund would be collected.
It was not immediately clear whether the T-shirts will still be distributed.
Former Sen. Anne Golden, a Republican colleague of Bennerson in the 23rd Legislature, said Bennerson was also her high school classmate.
"Greg was a kind spirit, a good human being and true friend," she said in a statement. "I called on him frequently on law enforcement and other matters, and he was always there when I needed his expert advice."
Golden said she saw Bennerson last Thursday at Pier 69, adding, "I never expected that Thursday evening would be the last time we would meet."
Gregory R. Francis, former St. Croix administrator and current candidate for lieutenant governor, said he received a call shortly after 6 a.m. Tuesday about his longtime friend's death. "I said 'Oh my God!' I didn't believe it at first," said Francis.
Francis said that Bennerson will be missed by all those he touched throughout his lifetime.
"I've known Greg for a number of years through the Boy Scouts, and we were scheduled to dance on Thursday with Folklorico," Francis said.
He added that Bennerson's mother, Vivian, started a steel pan group with the Boy Scouts when he and her Bennerson were members.
"What we will surely miss from Greg is his calm and collective demeanor. I have never heard him speak in a negative way," Francis said. "It's always been positive and motivational.
Sen. Lorraine Berry, another colleague of Bennerson in the Legislature, was among the first to issue a statement as news of his death spread.
"I was extremely shocked to hear the terrible news of the death of [former] Sen. Bennerson this morning because he was such a young, energetic individual who held an optimistic view on life and the future," Berry said.
She said she got to know Bennerson during his tenure in the Legislature "as an honest and dedicated public servant who was willing to listen to all sides of an issue. At that time, he had already been a respected law enforcement official, a labor leader and attained an impressive record
of community service which designated him as a true role model to young people."
Delegate Donna M. Christensen said many residents will remember Bennerson as an outstanding police detective and senator as well as a "responsible community voice and a valued colleague in the Democratic Party.
"To those who knew him more personally, Greg was nothing less than a beloved friend. I am just happy to have been among those who gave Greg some of his rose while he could smell them at his cocktail sip at Pier 69 last Sunday," Christensen said in a statement from Washington, D.C. "Greg was just as we will always remember him – warm, jovial, and selfless in his offer to serve this community in the 27th Legislature, dancing with Carmen and enjoying life to the fullest."
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.