WWII and a young soldier/typist finds a girl just his type
A memorial scholarship fund is created to honor Dr. Keith N. Bennett by his wife.
Around midnight, someone walked through the barracks and called out his name.
Keith Bennett? Keith Bennett?
You Keith Bennett?
Can you type?
This question seemed surreal to the 18-year-old from tiny Riverton, Neb., who’d just been drafted and shipped to Germany.
This was World War II. 1944.
A lot seemed surreal to Keith.
He’d just completed his freshman year at Nebraska State Teacher’s College in Kearney, where he’d met a wonderful girl there named Erma who said she’d write him every day.
He’d just been drafted and assigned to the infantry without getting the full number of weeks of training under his belt. He’d just arrived in Germany.
His convoy had just been attacked.
And earlier in the day, another person had walked through the barracks and ordered everyone to throw away all their possessions because they were being sent to the front lines.
Yes. I can type.
Well, we’ll see if you can type 60 words a minute.
Keith Bennett was told to report to the office first thing in the morning for a typing test. He realized it meant he might not have to go fight on the front lines, where the odds of making it home to Nebraska and to Erma weren’t so good.
That is, if he could type 60 words a minute.
“He had to type 60 words a minute, and he just made it. He typed exactly 60 words!”
Erma Bennett tells this story over the phone from her home in Indianapolis. It’s one of her favorite stories.
After passing the typing test, she explains, Keith was transferred out of infantry and assigned to a team that was closing down displaced-persons camps. He was the team’s clerk typist.
Keith had learned to type while in high school, Erma explains. And right before going to war he’d taken another typing class at college in Kearney.
“Knowing how to type saved his life.”
You could say it saved her life, too, she says, or at least made it happier than it might have been.
She’d grown up poor in Bloomington, Neb., a town about 50 miles south of Kearney. Riverton, the town where Keith had grown up, was just 11 miles east of Bloomington. But the two didn’t meet until college at Kearney.
Keith returned from the war and he earned his degree in biology (with a minor in business) at the Nebraska State Teachers College, now UNK. Erma earned a degree in social studies.
They married in 1946. They both taught in Omaha for five years and then moved to Florida, where Keith earned a master’s degree in school administration and a doctorate in education. He worked for years as principal at Miami Senior Adult Education Center.
Erma stayed home to raise their only child, Beth Ann.
Her husband earned many awards and honors over the years, including the Phi Delta Kappa “Man of the Year” award at the University of Miami and election into the Florida Adult Education Hall of Fame.
He worked 1:30 in the afternoon until 10 at night. He couldn’t become involved in the community because of those crazy hours, Erma says, but he always encouraged her to get out.
Back when Jimmy Carter was president, Erma joined a group of Democratic women on a trip to Washington, D.C., for a convention. One afternoon, the president and his wife Rosalynn invited the women to tea at the White House.
“It was fun running around the whole place. That definitely was one of the highlights of my life. And Keith put up the money for me to go.”
The two traveled the world. One of their favorite trips was to Russia for three weeks.
Keith wasn’t the life of the party type, she says. He was reserved. But he liked people and they liked him.
“I thought we had a good relationship,” she says. “We were at some event and we met a friend. She said, ‘Where is Keith? Oh, I see him. Wherever you see one of you, you see the other.'”
They had a great life together for 58 years before he died of Parkinson’s disease in 2005.
To honor him, Erma recently established the Dr. Keith N. Bennett Memorial Scholarship Fund at UNK. The gift will support scholarships in the College of Business and Technology, with a preference for students who need financial help.
“When my husband and I went to school,” Erma says, “he worked in the summer in Kansas harvesting to earn money. But we each had a scholarship. Had we not had that scholarship, we never would have gone to college.”
And had Keith not taken that typing class in the College of Business before going to the war, she says, he probably wouldn’t have typed 60 words a minute that morning so many years ago.
It’s not a big gift, she says, nothing to make a big deal about.
“It’s just giving back for what we got when we went to school.”
Student support is one of the campaign’s top priorities. If you also would like to help UNK students, please give online or contact the foundation’s Lucas Dart at 800-432-3216.