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Remembering A Champion

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A kind looking woman smiles into the camera while sitting at her desk

Words can’t outline the exact architecture of a great heart. A kind heart.

But one can picture a kitchen table, with a worn chair tilted just enough to welcome.

And one can see a girl, tall, dark haired and pleased with herself, who can run faster than all the boys. Who can swiftly climb a tree, but then decide to stay hidden among the leaves. But what about grief?

Even the image of a sandy-haired man killed in an accident won’t do. Or the image of his still untested wife who’d known her husband for five brief years.

Words do tell us, however, that grief gives up to struggle.

Imagine a somewhat sterner woman with long hair swept up into a tidy circular braid. One can see through the austereness of black and white that her eyes are gentle.

Picture a woman, now middle-aged, whose ability to speak is lost to a stroke. See her manipulating small wooden pieces in her mouth to exercise her tongue.

The images are in color now, and one can now see this woman, her hair now faded but still pulled up, driving so fast that she unnerves her passengers, sidling right up to cars who don’t understand her purpose.

Ione Bennion was born in 1908 and died in 1997, long enough to learn that life was unfair, but more unfair to some of us.

Even at the university where she contributed so much, most people don’t know her name. How could this heart, so strong and expansive, ever be diminished by something as quirky as time? Those of us who never knew her feel the loss.

Why isn’t Ione remembered? History shows that humans, as a race, suffer from memory loss, says Ross Peterson, a professor emeritus of history. Universities perhaps more so than most institutions. Students come and go, as do administrations.

Still, says Julia Gossard, an assistant professor of history, who is tasked with managing a workshop Ione created more than 20 years ago, “We need to bring her back into the conversation.”

Ross Peterson met Ione when he came to the university as an assistant professor in 1972. Twenty years later, after he founded USU’s Mountain West Center for Regional Studies, Peterson worked with Ione to establish the Wayne and Ione Bennion Teacher’s Workshop for the Perpetuation of Democracy. This annual summer program is housed in the center, and invites secondary teachers for a week-long intensive workshop on the core values of our nation.

Why isn’t Ione remembered? History shows that humans, as a race, suffer from memory loss, says Ross Peterson, a professor emeritus of history. Universities perhaps more so than most institutions. Students come and go, as do administrations.

Ione endowed the workshop when she had already passed 80, believing that our principles of democracy are best learned in a public classroom. It remains the only place on campus that still carries her name.

Julia Gossard was startled by Ione’s kindness and clarity of purpose.

“She was so progressive in so many ways, especially for her period,” Goddard says now. “She really made it so that women could access education.”

Ione’s introduction to Utah State was in 1947.

She earned her degree at the University of Utah, met and married Wayne Bennion in 1937, and started into a teaching career. In the midst of World War II, Wayne was supervising volunteers at Defense Depot Ogden, a massive mid-country stop for trains hauling war materials. He was killed when a stack of containers toppled on top of him. Ione’s response was to head to graduate school, and she was accepted to Stanford University. Then the Utah Agricultural College called, and she returned to Utah as the university’s dean of women.

In the 1948 Buzzer yearbook, Ione is slender, straight shouldered. She also likely noted a profile in the same yearbook of a young woman voted into student government. Hopefully, this “career girl,” the text stated, will possess “the peculiar talent to combine the intellectual ability of a student representative with the frilly chores of a wife.”

The next year’s Buzzer reports the new dean “injected new ideas into old things and inspired campus coeds (or ‘dorm daughters’) to greater heights than even they thought they could achieve.”

The post-war years presented another inequality. Crowds of G.I.s came home from war and headed back to school with funding from the G.I. bill. Women, on the other hand, “were just supposed to get married to (the G.I.s) and support their education,” says Peterson. “She just had a different vision of what the future should be for them. Anybody who seemed to not have a high opinion of their future, that’s who she championed.”

In 1947, Ione married a forestry professor, Theodore (Ted) Daniel. He was a “gruff old guy,” remembers Peterson, but he wasn’t threatened by Ione’s fearless ability to speak her mind. Other
men were. “She questioned everything. She’d challenge you, but in a very, very nice way.”

She eventually ticked off the wrong man, Utah Gov. J. Bracken Lee.

A nepotism law that hadn’t been used since the 1930s was resurrected, and suddenly Ione was out of a job. The policy prohibited a wife to work at the university at the same time her husband did.

Ione fought the sheer unfairness of her termination.

“She was very, very popular,” says Peterson. But there was no bitterness, he says. “That just wasn’t part of her makeup.”

She began teaching at Logan High and noted when a bright student just up and stopped coming to class. Ione was appalled when she learned the reason: High school girls who became pregnant were suspended from school. Her response was what Thad Box said was a very Ione thing to do. She used inheritance money to purchase an older home near Logan High and remodeled it into a school for unmarried teenage mothers to earn their diplomas.

Ione Bennion looks up at two female students with a smile

Ione Bennion put others first. Her legacy lives on at the university through the Wayne and Ione Bennion Teacher’s Workshop for the Perpetuation of Democracy she endowed. Image courtesy of USU Special Collections and Archives.

Box met Ione when he was hired in 1971 as dean of the School of Natural Resources. Ione, he remembers, just swept up he and his wife Jenny into her many advocacy pursuits. Ione had other close friends who joined her, including Alison Thorne, a pioneering scholar in her field of economics.

Her friends speculated there wasn’t a cause in Cache Valley she didn’t speak for. Her work with young mothers inspired her significant role in bringing Planned Parenthood to Logan and supporting the women’s center at USU.

The cause, however, that was the root from which all sprang was her belief that all Americans should be able to vote, and that women in particular were guaranteed a role in democracy. Later in life, she’d repeat what her mother told her as they attended a meeting 1920 regarding the 19th Amendment allowing women to vote: “Perhaps in your lifetime, Ione, you will see the time when women will have all the same rights as men.”

In her mid-50s, she pushed legislation that resulted in the Utah Voting Rights Act of 1966.

And when the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was introduced in 1972, Ione was a vocal supporter in Utah’s (ultimately unsuccessful) fight.

Box chuckles as he remembers Ione. She championed many causes that he suspects upset members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which Ione was a faithful member.

“She was just strong and willing to take on tough problems that other people thought she shouldn’t be involved in,” he says.

Ione had a much better relationship with another Utah governor, Scott Matheson.

From him, in 1978, she received state recognition for her volunteerism—a poor word to describe Ione’s life. That was just one of a number of awards that, if listed, would fill a page—single space.

By Janelle Hyatt
Review overview
  • Paul Mohai January 14, 2020

    Thank you for the great article about Ione Bennion. My wife, Caroline, and I had the great privilege of knowing her the four years we worked at USU in the mid-1980s. I was a junior faculty member in the College of Natural Resources, and my wife was a graduate student in the History Department, so we also knew a number of the people mentioned in the article who were close associates of Ione. She was one of the kindest, most generous, and wisest people my wife and I have ever known, truly a remarkable person and an inspiration.