David Hays is a former cotton farmer from Mansfield. He may live in Covington now, but I am certain that he will always claim Mansfield as his home, just as I will claim Porterdale, no matter how many years I might live in Conyers. I owe a lot to David Hays. He has opened a lot of doors for me in my life. One of the best things David Hays ever did on my behalf was introducing me to David Bennett - one of the best people I have ever known.
David Hays and David Bennett go back a long way - and a long time. They go all the way back to the 1970s and ag school at the University of Georgia. A bond was formed between them that would never be broken - or even frayed. Very few people in life are ever blessed to develop the type relationship these two Davids enjoyed for almost four decades.
David Bennett worked for the state of Georgia for more than 30 years - in the department of soil and water conservation. I saw him rarely, but enjoyed every minute I ever spent with him. He was a master storyteller and, unlike with me, most of his stories - I am pretty sure - were true. He could make a man laugh just by the way he turned a phrase, and he had more common sense than just about any person I ever encountered.
In addition to being one of the most well-liked people I have ever known, he was also one of the most well-respected. A few years back Bennett bestowed upon me the high honor of inviting me to speak at a state meeting for his commission. He put my lovely wife, Lisa, and me up at Callaway Gardens and I got to watch him, up close and personal, as he held court with people - important people - from all over the state. It was obvious that these people held him in very high esteem. When David Bennett spoke, they listened - and not because they had to.
David married a Covington girl, Cary Tuck, whose father was a well respected doctor in Covington. He became as well-known, well-respected and well-loved in Newton County as he was in the rest of the state, and make no mistake about it - he was known all over the state. Often as I have traveled the length and breadth of Georgia and run into people associated with the University of Georgia School of Agriculture or the Department of Natural Resources, while searching for some sort of connection, I have asked of so and so, "Do you know David Bennett?" The question never failed to bring a big smile to the face of anyone fortunate enough to be able to answer yes.
My children loved David Bennett. They thought he was one of the funniest people in the world and he always made each of them feel special. At one particular tailgate party on the plains of Auburn, Bennett told everyone who would listen - and more than a few who didn't want to - that my oldest child, Jamie, was "probably the smartest person in Alabama on this particular day." She probably was, and loved hearing David say so.
Two weeks ago I ran into David and Cary at the Georgia-South Carolina game. They were sitting on a bench at the top of the stairs, just above the Tate Center. I walked right past them and did not see them - but he saw me and called out my name. It had been more than a year since I had seen David and was delighted to get to visit with him for a while. He asked me to "pardon his laziness" and remained seated as we shook hands. He teased me about how white my hair had gotten since the last time we saw one another and reminded me that we were both getting older.
Luckily for all of us my whole family was with me. Jamie, Jackson and Jenna were delighted to get to visit with Bennett for a brief while. Then we all said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, promising to stay in touch.
My brief encounter left me with a warm feeling that carried me through the rest of the day.
And then Wednesday night I received an e-mail - the kind you never expect to receive - informing me that David Bennett had died at 2 o'clock that afternoon. Shock. Sadness. Disbelief. Bewilderment. Many emotions flooded my soul. How could that be?
David Bennett was my age. I had just seen him and talked to him. He seemed fine. But he wasn't. His death is another vivid reminder that none of us are promised tomorrow, so we had better make peace with ourselves today.
My heart goes out to Cary and David Hays and all the people who will miss David Bennett so very much. He was a good man - one of the best I have ever known. I never heard a single person say a single bad word about him, and there aren't many people you can say that about.