Madeline Bennett of Merrimack celebrates birthday 100

The birth of Madeline Irene Bennett, born Jan. 30, 1914, – 100 years ago – surely was heralded as a world-shaker for her parents, Dennis and Bertha Nash, and perhaps, for their friends.

Her mom and dad, residents of Nashua, may have been too immersed in congratulations, diapers and midnight feedings to have chatted much about other events of 1914 – Henry Ford’s new assembly line for the Model T automobile, or the first scheduled airplane flight in Florida.

Chances are good that the parents’ concerns were centered more upon nurturing the new baby, a child who would grow into a woman with a passion for teaching that blazed for three decades.

Dozens of former students greeted Madeline “Nan” Bennett at her 100th birthday party, held Feb. 1, at the John O’Leary Adult Community Center, 4 Church St., Merrimack. Her students, her friends and numerous family members reminisced about the old days and the not-so-old days.

“I was born in Nashua, but I’ve been here all my life,” Bennett said. “You’re bound to know everybody.”

Marie van de Weghe, of Merrimack, said she and Bennett talk on the phone almost every day. They still play cribbage together.

“So long ago, she brought me into this senior center,” van de Weghe said. “I wanted to meet people but you just can’t go and say, ‘Here I am.’ She picked me up and brought me to the center. We’ve been friends for 18 years.”

Landmarks of Bennett’s life were inscribed on ivory-
colored, card-stock souvenirs. She attended Sacred Heart Catholic School and graduated from Nashua High. Her teaching certificate was secured in 1933 from Keene Normal School, now Keene State College.

Bennett became an assistant teacher in 1934 in Hudson. The following year, she went to teach in a one-room schoolhouse, Rural School House No. 7 on Joppa Road. Additional teaching posts followed in East Weare, Hollis and Brookline.

She married Alba J. Bennett in 1939. Their daughter, Beverly Ann, was born in 1944. Bennett returned to teaching in 1954. She taught at McGaw Elementary in Reeds Ferry, Merrimack Elementary and Reeds Ferry Elementary schools.

Betty Jo (Salvail) Overton, of Merrimack, said Bennett was her second-grade teacher at McGaw, a two-room school that today is the headquarters for the Merrimack PTA Kindergarten & Preschool.

“She was a very good teacher,” Overton said. “She made it so that you enjoyed learning.”

It was 1974 when Bennett retired from teaching after 30 years. A job at Rosie’s Posies Flower Shop soon evolved into volunteer work at the Merrimack library. When a vacancy opened, she became a paid staffer. A decade later, in 1984, Bennett’s husband of 45 years passed away. She focused on her work at the library and retired not long ago, in 2009.

Little did her friends know they would see Bennett riding in a Conestoga wagon during the Independence Day Parade of 2011. She was the parade’s grand marshal and the recipient of the Boston Post Cane, a historical artifact traditionally granted to the oldest resident of the town. The gold-capped, ebony cane was one of more than 400 distributed in 1901 to towns in the readership area of the Boston Post.

The newspaper’s editor sent the canes with the request they be granted to the eldest resident of each town. Bennett and others considered for the cane rode aboard the wagon, according to the Merrimack Historical Society’s summer newsletter of 2011.

Today, Bennett, a member of Our Lady of Mercy Church, continues her stewardship as Merrimack’s holder of the Boston Post Cane. She cherishes a replica of it. The original is held for safekeeping at Merrimack’s Town Hall.

Bennett greeted well wishers for more than two hours. Her daughter and son-in-law, Beverly and Mark Haseltine, were there to celebrate the occasion, as were many others in the family. Bennett gave hugs to most of her five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

The assembled enjoyed coffee, conversation and frosted cupcakes provided by Cupcake Conspiracy in Merrimack. Finally, Bennett was presented with a decorated, white cake topped with candles. The flames atop three numeral candles – a one, a zero and another zero – were extinguished with ease.

Darcy Labrosse, of Merrimack, watched the festivities and mentioned being library buddies with Bennet for some 20 years. Labrosse, formerly a library assistant in the technical services department, said Bennett was always an optimistic person with a positive attitude.

“Maddie never says a bad word about anybody,” Labrosse said. “She always has good things to say and has such a good outlook on life. She has a great sense of humor.”

Bennett shifted in the cushy, upholstered chair that was the seat of honor at her 100th birthday party. She had been well hugged and kissed. Balloons bobbed behind her chair. A basket stacked high with birthday cards included one from Team 7-3 at Merrimack Middle School. It bore more than 50 signatures, many of which ended with flourishes of smiley faces. The road at the middle school is named Madeline Bennett Way, in honor of the teacher – the 100-year-old birthday girl with the “great sense of humor.”

“I thought it was amazing that I get to be 100,” Bennett said. “I’m so glad to see so many people. So glad they came. Maybe they just wanted a cupcake.”