Monday, August 11, 2008


Oral family tradition passed on from the Bennett family of Canlaon confirm that their great ancestor is Rufus Bennett, who was once a bodyguard of General George Washington during the American Revolutionary War.

Soon after America's declaration as an independent nation, the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Rufus slowly through the years took on positions and careers that will serve them as members of a responsible citizenry.

One of his descendants, Roy Bennett, a teacher, answered the call of the United States government to go to the Philippines to teach basic education and to train Filipino teachers with English as the medium of instruction.

These teachers became knows as the Thomasites. No, they did not go to UST. They were named after the transport vessel, the USS Thomas that brought them to the shores of Manila Bay on August 12, 1901.

Roy Bennett was initially assigned at Nueva Vizcaya and helped build their high school. There he met Josefa Cutaran and had 5 children. Roy Bennett loved the Philippines and the Filipino people.

In 1904 the World's Fair was held in St. Louis in celebration of the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase (which gave the United States its present day boundaries stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans)

The Spanish-American War was still fresh from the minds of the people. Following the war the United States acquired Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. This fair was allowed to "display" some of the native inhabitants. One of the "primitive" and controversial displays were the Igorots where people watched them eat live dogs.

The fair was grandiose and magnificent. Exhibits were staged by 62 foreign nations, the United States government, and 43 of the then-45 states. These featured industries, cities, private organizations and corporations, theater troupes, and music schools. There were also carnival-type amusements found on "The Pike."

Because the 1904 Summer Olympics were also held in St. Louis that same year and time visitor arrivals to the fair reached millions.

The largest of the "living" exhibits was the Philippine village, a 47 acre site that for seven months became home to more than at least 10 different ethnic groups.

Roy Bennett was one of the organizers and was proud to introduce Philippine culture to the world.

A Sugar Cane grinder from Negros was also displayed at the fair.

A ticket to the Philippine exposition.

Because of the success of the World's Fair in St. Louis, Manila soon followed by having their "Carnival" in 1908. According to Alex Castro, "It was an attempt to bridge the gap created by wartime animosity among Spanish, American and Filipino residents."

Perhaps, no other event has piqued the interest and stirred a nation’s imagination more than the fabled Manila Carnivals. Held from 1908-1939, the 2-week fair was organized as a goodwill event to celebrate harmonious U.S.-Philippine relations and to showcase our commercial, industrial and agricultural progress.

Spectacular parades, lavish shows, firework displays and the crowning of the Manila Carnival Queen highlighted this "greatest spectacle in the Orient".

But the climax of the carnival was the coronation of the carnival queen. By December of 1907, Filipino, American and Spanish communities have started naming candidates to the queenship of the first-ever Manila Carnival. The initial list of Filipina bets included Josefina Ocampo, Purita Villanueva, Leonarda Limjap and Pilar Reyes Cobarrubias, all of them beautiful and wealthy. The honor went to Purita Villanueva.

In the 1930s Manila was a thriving commercial center in the Far East and the Escolta was its pride and joy.

During this time, the eldest daughter of Roy Bennett, Helen Bennett (pictured both here) became a candidate of the Manila Carnival.

In 1936, Helen Bennett became one of the Carnival Queens and was given the title, "Queen of the Visayas"

Helen Bennett (far right) with her court Miss Luzon and Miss Mindanao. Sad to day, three years after Helen was crowned, the Manila Carnival seized because of the impending onslaught of World War 2.

The Bennett family were taken prisoners of the Japanese and were detained at UST. Her brother Roy Jr., who was the manager of the Manila Bulletin at that time and was taken to the dungeons of Fort Santiago.

World War II veteran Donald Douglas Rutter wrote this about Roy in his online essay entitled, "Long March into Oblivion" :

Roy Bennet was in the Dungeons. He had been the editor of the English language newspaper called the Manila Bulletin. He was captured by the Japanese and told that if he would continue on as the editor he could come and go in Manila. Roy refused the offer and was promptly put in the Dungeons. For their sake the Japanese made a bad decision. Because the Filipino people saw a white man refuse to cooperate and take a stand against the Japanese, he was immediately jailed. The Filipinos marveled and were so impressed by the courage of Roy Bennet to act for their benefit that the Filipino people formed a large resistance force. The Filipinos resisted everything the Japanese wanted them to do in honor of Roy Bennet.

Roy and I talked a great deal and we got away with it in the "hospital" cell. Roy talked of the higher things in life, of freedom, national honor, the reason for the war, and things a typical sailor doesn't dwell on. He told me that he had been in Fort Santiago many, many months and didn't know if his wife and daughter were dead or alive. He said the Japanese kept him locked up because he refused to operate his newspaper under their censorship.

The Japanese weren't having much success winning over the citizens of the Philippines. Bennet's newspaper was important to them and he refused to bow to their demand to run it their way. He was a tiny man even before the Japanese threw him in the prison. He had been crippled by a childhood disease, probably polio, which left him with a severe limp and one arm lame. Although he was child-like physically, he was a giant of a man intellectually and a believer same as I.

In less than a week, all of a sudden they brought clean clothes, towels, and soap and took us to running water. I gave him a bath, and one for myself. I put on clean bandages, cut his beard (a foot long), shaved him, and trimmed his hair. He told that the clothes brought by his wife. I told him, "They are going to move you out of here." We were both exhilarated, getting ready to get out. He went back to Santo Tomas to his family, which took some of the heat off the Japanese. The Filipinos had won. He had a code of honor. I absorbed many things from him, the greatest man I ever met. I became a different person. I was so pleased that God allowed me to help Roy Bennet.

Soon the Americans came and liberated the Philippines from Japanese imperialism and granted them their independence.

For some the price to pay was too much.

This is an article of Joan Bennett, one of the daughters of Roy Jr. that appeared in the newspapers regarding life in the interment camp at UST. (Click to enlarge)

After the war, Helen Bennett became the Foreign Secretary to President Quirino.

And met Johns Hopkins University engineer, Joseph Schon. They were married in Malacanang with no less than Chief Justice Manual Moran (Uncle of Miss Universe Margie Moran) officiating and President Quirino in presence. They soon heard about a secret paradise in the mountains of Negros Island and relocated their, soon to be followed by other family members.

In 1952, a niece of Helen Bennett-Schon, Nancy Bennett Icard enrolled at Silliman University in Dumaguete City.

She later became Miss Silliman 1953, and was immortalized in the country's longest running campus beauty pageant which started in 1946.

That same year, Blesilda Ocampo became the very first ever Filipina to make it into the semi-finals of Miss Universe that was held in Long Beach.

Blesilda Ocampo being escorted by Senator Benigno Aquino.

Manila was now recuperating and regenerating from the ravishes of war. A new hope and spirit dawned upon the Filipino.

In 1963, another niece of Helen Bennett was to follow the footsteps of her aunt and was crowned Miss Philippines.

But Lalaine Bennett even went further. She became the first Filipina ever to be a finalist in Miss Universe.

Lalaine shortly after her Miss Universe victory.

Lalaine Bennett in the year 2000.

Today, Helen Bennett is 97 and is still strong and active in Canlaon City. She will be turning 98 this December 21. She is one of the surviving Carnival Queens of Manila and the proud daughter of a Thomasite. Her son Ricky Bennett Schon is the Co-Chairman of the Hari ng Negros Organization giving it proper direction only a family member with an incredible history of duty, dignity and honor can provide.

From the American Revolution, the Thomasites, to the St. Louis World's Fair, to the Manila Carnival Queen, from World War 2, to Miss Silliman then to Miss Universe.

Major events in history all intertwined yet destined to be meet in an enchanted kingdom in the sky.

Proud to be a Negrense. Forever Hari ng Negros.