Bennie Herring has learned a lot of lessons in her time. She’s lived through much and has seen so many things and people come and go. She lived through the Great Depression, the Women’s and the Civil Rights movements, the Holocaust and several wars. She’s seen the first man to walk on the moon, and remembers well the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In her lifetime, she has seen the development of television, computers and cell phones.
With all that she’s seen, Herring says with pride that she was raised right. And at 92 years young, she knows a thing or two about what’s right and what’s not.
Herring was raised in Jefferson County, and her father was a farmer. She has an older sister and two younger brothers, and their mother passed away when Herring was 16. But she says she was truly blessed to have her father until she was 50 years old. She still speaks with such fondness for her father.
Growing up, her family farmed and lived near several Black families — people who Herring says just weren’t treated as equals. She sits up a bit straighter as she says, “My father taught me different, and I grew up knowing that all men are equal.”
Herring’s best friend as a child was named Marguerite, and she says that she cried when her young friend wasn’t allowed to get on the same school bus as her.
“I came home the first day of school and ran and found my father. He said, ‘What is it?’ I said how come Marguerite can’t get on the bus with me? And he got right in my face, and squatted down, and said, ‘It’s not right.’ My Mama and Daddy, they knew that wasn’t right,” she recalled.
Herring was an avid reader even before she started school. Because her birthdate fell after the deadline to begin school the year she turned 6, her first day of school was delayed. But that didn’t stop her from reading all of her sister’s books.
“I was put in the primer. I read all those books and memorized them,” she said, adding that being in the primer was the “most boring thing.”
“When I got home I ran to my dad and I said Dad, I need to be helping you on the farm. I don’t learn a thing. He said, ‘Maybe it’ll get better.’ And I said, It’s got to do something,” she said, laughing.
Even so, her school years became something she enjoyed and cherished.
“When I got to that real first grade, it was the most wonderful thing,” she said. “The teacher hugged every child. And I’m sure if we’d been integrated, she would have hugged them too.”
Herring remembers the classroom like it was yesterday. The ABCs were posted all along the wall, which the teacher pointed out. Herring points out that she’d already learned them.
“The teacher said, ‘We’ll put those letters together and we can read anything.’ Oh, I was turned on! And also we could write. That was what I was wanting to do,” she said.
She couldn’t wait to get home and tell her dad — her life course was now set.
“I told Dad, I can’t be a farmer like you. I’ve got to be a teacher,” she said, adding that her father always supported and encouraged her. “It was his dream for me. He said I needed to keep my grades up if I was going to be a teacher.”
Herring’s mother died in 1945, and Herring says she became the “lawyer” in the family — often stepping in and teaching her younger brothers. One lesson she especially remembers fondly was when she taught them to stand up and be honest with their father.
“When Dad asked us something, I told them you just say yes sir or no sir; don’t add another word,” she said, smiling. She also taught them to drive.
Herring became an honor graduate at her high school, went on to attend college at the Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville, and she says she is very grateful that her father was able to send her to college.
“I had to learn to study when I went to college,” she said. ”I was easier to memorize than my sister,” she said, adding that college was very exciting for her.
“It was the first time I met people outside of my zone where I’d grown up. In Louisville, I knew everybody in school. Grammar school was downstairs, high school was upstairs. I knew a lot of my sister’s friends. Going to college you met people that were smart, and some that didn’t have sense to get out of a shower of rain,” she said.
It wasn’t long before Herring had her first appointment as a teacher, and she says that although that first year was a bit rocky, she never doubted her calling to teach.
“You don’t give up. Here I was 21 years old. I knew in my first year of teaching, I didn’t do everything wrong,” she recalled.
It was in those days that she met her husband, Ken Herring, who became a chiropractor. The couple first came to Statesboro in 1954, and he opened his practice with her running the office. Even though it meant leaving the classroom, she was committed to standing by her husband’s side, at home and at work.
Herring says she ran things and did the hiring.
“I always discussed with him what I was going to ask the applicants, but he left it up to me,” she said. “He always said that women see things men don’t. He believed, even back then, that women should get paid the same as men. That infuriated him to think that people would do that.”
Herring is a great judge of character and always has been. When hiring for help with their home so that she could be in the office with her husband, Herring was once again in charge. Two women from the Millen area were sent to her for consideration.
“I looked at Laura, and there was something about her that I saw in her eyes. You have to go on what’s inside,” she said.
Herring remembers that her husband only asked for $5 a week, saying he didn’t need more than that. She took care of the bills, and he trusted her completely.
The couple had two children: Becky, who is the Academic Department Administrator at Emory University, and John, who works with information technology. Herring clearly loves her grandchildren, and gets excited when she says she has one great-grandchild. She says they’re the reason she has a cell phone.
“I have one so I can look at my grandchildren,” she said, smiling.
Herring was involved on many committees and boards through the years, and attended Statesboro City Council meetings until she was 90 — just to be sure they were doing things right. She’s excited to see women serving on the council these days.
Herring served on the library board in Statesboro, and she’s especially proud that she had a hand in helping to raise the funds to get the library built. She says she is proud that it’s such a big part of the community and has been so beneficial to residents.
Herring and her husband were charter members at Pittman Park United Methodist Church, located on Fair Road. The church was organized in May 1956, in the fellowship hall of First Church, Statesboro, with 104 families. The first services were held in the Marvin Pittman School.
Herring says that at first they had planned to just build a chapel, and add more buildings as the church grew. But first, she said, they had to find a good location.
“All the committee members were looking for property and someone suggested the property (on Fair Road),” she said. “It was owned by Mrs. Pittman, and it was about 7 or 8 acres across from the college. It was a cotton field, of course, it wasn’t plowed.”
One of the committee members wrote to Mrs. Pittman, who was the wife of Dr. Marvin Pittman, a former president at Georgia Southern University, asking if she’d sell. She told them that if the property would be used for a church, she’d donate it.
As they sought the funds for the build, they soon found that they had enough for more than just a chapel, and construction began. Eventually, the committee kicked around some names for the new church, and they settled on Pittman Park.
“I know that made (Mrs. Pittman) feel good,” Herring said. “But she said, ‘Put that in the minutes that I had nothing to do with that.’”
Herring has been a faithful member at Pittman Park, serving in many ways over the years, including teaching Sunday school, and she speaks fondly of her church family.
Statesboro has grown much since Herring became a resident in the 1950s, and she says the growth is exciting. There are many more churches now, she notes, saying that this is a good thing.
“It gives everybody an opportunity to go where they want to go. You don’t have to be a Methodist, Baptist or Catholic. You can be whatever you want to be. You can be non-denominational or undenominational,” she said, laughing.
One of the biggest areas of growth in the community, she says, is the college. Herring was a teacher, so education is very important to her. She even notes that the high school in Statesboro has grown so much that “it reminds me of a college.”
When asked about the things she’s seen in her lifetime, Herring recalls the first time she rode on a plane, when her daughter was 6 months old. She’s flown a good bit since then, even traveling out of the country.
“I’ve been to places that I’d only studied,” she said. “I’ve been to Alaska, went to Washington. First trip we took was to San Francisco. I saw things I’d only read about.”
If you ask Herring about the secret to long life, she just smiles. And then she points to her faith. She has a devotional time each morning, and she prays for those she knows who are in need. Faith, she says, must have feet.
“Going up and getting your head sprinkled, you’re getting on the side with the Lord,” she said. “The Lord will never leave you, and he will give you the opportunity, as a woman or whoever, to do lots of things.”
Herring says that no matter your age, you must have hope. She had cancer about 16 years ago, and she said that giving up was not an option. It still isn’t.
“I believe you just can’t give up on life,” she said. “You don’t give up.”