Outgoing Baldwin mayor known for his compassion, care

Stephanie Hacke
| Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

Alexander “Sandy” Bennett Jr. prides himself on knowing many of the 20,000 faces of the residents in Baldwin Borough.

Whether it was as a longtime borough police officer, surveyor, excavator or serving as mayor for the last 16 years, Bennett helped to improve the lives of Baldwin's residents.

“I'm going to look back on it — no matter what I did, I did it to the best of my ability,” said Bennett, 71, who did not seek another term as mayor. “It was a pleasurable ride, all the way.”

David Depretis, a Democrat, was sworn in on Jan. 6 as Baldwin Borough's new mayor.

Bennett was known for his compassion and care for the community, leaders said as they wished him farewell in recent weeks.

Three words come to mind for Baldwin Borough police Chief Michael Scott when he thinks of Bennett, he said, those are: Class, grace and humility.

“It's been a pleasure getting to know you over the years and an honor to work with you,” Scott said.

Growing up Baldwin

Bennett, 71, a Democrat, has lived his entire life in Baldwin Borough, growing up and starting a family with his wife, Betty, in the town.

“It was such a nice area to grow up in,” Bennett said. “Nobody worked on Saturdays and Sundays. We never knew what a house key was. You left your key in the car from the day you bought it to the day you sold it. You knew all your neighbors.”

Bennett's first experience with municipal government was when he was 10 years old and his father attended a township commissioners meeting — back in the days before Baldwin Borough was founded and the community was still a part of Baldwin Township. He, admittedly, had no idea what was going on at the meeting.

His first knowledge of politics came in Baldwin High School, where a new coach put people he knew on the team, Bennett said.

“That wasn't me,” Bennett said. “That's why I didn't go out for football.”

The 1960 Baldwin High School graduate took a job as a surveyor and was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1964. He attended basic training in Fort Knox then artillery school in Oklahoma and qualified for officer training, but was placed on hold-over.

As a picky eater, the only thing he would eat was chipped ham.

Bennett ultimately worked in the mail room during his Army days and withdrew his application for officer training, as he was too far down on the list and it would have extended his stay in the military.

He returned to Baldwin and life as a surveyor in 1966 and married his childhood sweetheart.

Bennett learned the lay of the land in Baldwin and many Pittsburgh communities through his surveying work.

While doing this, his father, Alexander, alerted him that the Baldwin Borough Police Department had a test for a patrolman. He took it and out of 15, he was one of three hired.

“I didn't know how bad the pay was until I started,” Bennett said, laughing.

He started with a salary of $4,800 a year in 1966.

During his 27 years on the borough police force, Bennett was involved in three gun battles, served as the department's firearms instructor and answered calls. He was promoted to sergeant in the mid-1970s.

“I loved being a policeman,” Bennett said. “I enjoyed every call that I went on, no matter how big or how small. I looked at it as that was my neighbor.”

There was times that he was shot at, like the man who stole a Pleasant Hills police car and Bennett found him in Baldwin in a tunnel off of Old Clairton Road.

“He didn't hit me,” Bennett said.

Police work and politics

It was his experiences as a police officer and the things he witnessed that led Bennett to get into politics, he said.

A one-time Baldwin mayor questioned why the police department was “shut down” on holidays. He said that if a person who was his boss didn't understand how the department worked, that was a problem.

It was also working as a police sergeant during the Michael Rosenblum disappearance in the 1980s that led Bennett to run, he said. According to news reports at the time, Baldwin police found Rosenblum's vehicle but did not report that fact to Pittsburgh police for months. The case was never solved.

“Politics is dirty,” Bennett said. “We can't have that going on.”

Bennett retired from the police department in 1992. He also ran Bennett Excavating and Plumbing until about six years ago.

When Bennett complained about how officers were treated, his father, Alexander, a Baldwin Borough councilman for 22 years, would tell him, “Why don't you do something about it?”

So, he ran for mayor.

His goal: to separate politics from the police department.

“There should not be politics when it comes to the police department,” Bennett said. “Let the guys do their job.”

Bennett, too, teamed with Whitehall Mayor James Nowalk and serves on the board of the Baldwin-Whitehall Friends of the Theater Arts.

He found a log cabin that was going to be destroyed on Willett Road.

Working with the Baldwin Historical Society, Bennett had the log cabin moved to the municipal building property and has worked to restore the structure from the 1880s to its original condition.

Community involvement

Bennett always did what he could for the community.

“The question is not where do I start, but where does it end,” Councilman Michael Ducker said as he listed the accomplishments during Bennett's tenure as mayor. He deserved recognition, Ducker said. Yet, the only mayor's award he could give him, was a big “thank you.”

Without his mayoral duties, Bennett will have more time to spend with his grandchildren and fixing-up historic Franklin cars, one of his favorite pastimes. He serves on the board of directors for the Cazenovia, New York-based H.H. Franklin Club.

“I have too many,” he said, as he flipped through a photo album of all of the cars he has already restored.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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