Story updated Nov. 24, 2020, at 1:00pm.
Merriam-Webster defines a legacy as “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.” From this stems hundreds of thousands of ambiguous interpretations of what a legacy truly is – a tangible sense of what a person once was? A recollection of memories held by the people that loved you? How can one person’s life even be defined in terms of what they left behind? Author Shannon Alder once said, “A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.”
A life of radiance, one of love, one of talent – a life lived and embodied in the hearts of the people he touched throughout his life – is how Blake Bennett’s legacy could be described.
Bennett, a 2016 Pine View graduate, was killed in a hit and run crash on Tuesday night In Tallahassee, Fla., where he was a senior at Florida State University (FSU). After practicing the trumpet with a friend, Bennett rode his scooter to get something to eat when he was struck by an unknown speeding vehicle.
The police made an arrest Nov. 19 in the case: 27-year-old Ryan Walters, was charged with failure to remain at a crash involving death and driving on a suspended license.
One of the first people to find out about Bennett’s passing was his grandfather, Ben Jacobson. Jacobson spoke about the outpouring of grief and love for Bennett and his family.
“He enjoyed his friends- and he had a lot of them,” he said.
One such friend, Maddy Mayer, a fellow Pine View graduate, made a post to Facebook that was received with an outpouring of comments from members of the Pine View community expressing their condolences and memories of Bennett as an outstandingly positive presence in class.
“Sending so much love your way,” alumna Marina Okawa wrote, “Blake was one of the best at Pine View, so blessed to have grown up with you all.”
Social studies teacher Robin Melton wrote, “I was incredibly lucky to watch all of you grow from 8-12th grade as your class sponsor….Still having a hard time processing what has happened. Blake was a talented, funny and caring young man. He will be greatly missed by all.”
“I remember during rehearsals for our senior band graduation performance, I was struggling with a jazz piece,” alumna Sravya Kamarajugadda wrote. “Blake offered to stay after practice and help me out. He was so kind and an incredible musician. Every time I pick up my trumpet I will be playing for him.”
Bennett was introduced to Pine View band teacher Victor Mongillo in elementary school and had stayed in touch with him ever since.
“Blake was just the most kind, giving, talented young man,” Mongillo said. “He came into the band room with his grandfather when he was a fourth-grader, he was just dying to play the trumpet. Back then, he was so little his feet didn’t even reach the floor. He immediately had a talent for any brass instrument; he could play any brass instrument I put in his hand. The trumpet, the French horn, the baritone, the tuba, the trombone – he could literally pick up any brass instrument. And even when he was still in middle school, if I was missing a euphonium player in one of the groups, I’d say, ‘Blake can you sit in and play euphonium?’ and he’d figure it out within a few minutes, he’d be able to play all the parts.”
“By the time he (Bennett) got to high school, he really started to love jazz,” Mongillo continued, “so he started playing the trumpet in the jazz band, and he continued to play in the other bands to help out because he was such a great trumpet player. He made the Allstate Band when he was still in middle school – that’s how talented he was.”
“He came back all the time to Pine View. Whenever he was in town, he’d come back and ask if he could play with the jazz band and help work with the jazz band trumpets, to see if he could help them learn jazz and improvisation. He was that kind of person who always wanted to give back, because he was so happy with what he received and then as soon as he absorbed more knowledge at FSU and learned new things he wanted to come back and show and teach everybody so that they could get to learn what he had been learning.”
“He played French horn in the Philharmonic. And the professors of music were all telling him ‘Forget the trumpet! Forget the jazz! Stick to the French horn! So what he decided to do was forget listening to other people. He gave up horn and concentrated on his trumpet,” Jacobson said in reference to Bennett’s time with the Sarasota Youth Orchestra.
Bennett was the recipient of the Louis Armstrong award, the highest level interscholastic award given to trumpet students at high schools in the United States. At FSU, he was working toward a bachelor’s degree in jazz performance and a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Social Studies teacher Roma Jagdish taught Bennett in his senior year at Pine View, “It was a government honors class — they were a very relaxed group. The class got close because there were only a few students,” Jagdish said, quietly reminiscing; it was obvious she was still processing the news of Bennett’s passing.
“I remembered Blake used to play the trumpet so well, and I love jazz. I had him in the first semester, and I told him I wanted to hear him play. So I got a ticket during Christmas time and so I watched Blake play. It was phenomenal,” Jagdish said.
“It was a fun class. Blake was a very sweet guy. Every Friday they would dress up, and I told them, ‘Guys, I want to take pictures of you.’ That particular year was the only year where I took photos of the seniors, and I still have it on my phone,” Jagdish said. The room filled with a sense of nostalgia as she pulled out her phone and started scrolling through pictures she had taken of them on the senior days in 2015-2016.
“It was the beach themed senior friday. [Blake] was so sweet; he’d say, ‘Mrs. Jagdish, I want to take the photo. You should be in the photo.’ I told him, ‘No, I want you to be in the photo,’” Jagdish said, showing off a picture of the small group of then-seniors decked out in beach wear.
After hearing several stories about the fun the class had on those dress up days full of photos, laughter, and sometimes strawberry ice cream, Jagdish put away her phone, her smile, hidden behind a mask though still apparent, fading. She sat back in her chair.
“I don’t want to get emotional,” Jagdish said, sighing and explaining the shock she felt when she heard the news. “It breaks my heart. Sometimes, you know, it seems like the Lord takes the real sweet, sweet ones first.”
Jagdish said she wished to give her condolences to his family, “You have a wonderful son, and I feel your loss, your pain. I am a mother and Blake was such a gentle soul. I really really feel it, from the bottom of my heart.”
Robin Melton, the sponsor for Bennett’s graduating class, said, “He (Bennett) had a wonderful sense of humor; he could always make you laugh. And one of my favorite memories was at graduation, and watching him on stage, play and perform with Jazz Band and just listening to his talent, and when he walked across the stage, he gave me a big ‘ole bear hug, and that was what I was trying to focus on last night as I was trying to process everything.”
“Being a class sponsor, you always have a special bond with kids, but being with them from middle school all the way to graduation… we all knew each other, we were all one big family, and for something like this, it impacts all of us,” Melton said.
Bennett was not only a renowned musician and student, but also a dedicated member of the Pine View middle school basketball team, going on to join the Venice High School team.
“Blake is one of those very positive, enthusiastic and happy kids. So, when I’d see him on campus, he’d stop and just start talking about whatever was going on. When he played basketball for me, he wanted to be a star. He wanted to be the best player,” history teacher and middle school basketball coach Scott Wolfinger said. “And then, he went out of Venice and he played for Venice, and his senior year, he – all of a sudden – was a starter, started scoring a lot of points, hitting a lot of three-pointers. And I remember coming into school, and he would stop me, and he would search me out, and he would start talking about how he did. He was so happy and he was so excited. It was really fun hearing about how successful he was. It was really important to him.”
Wolfinger continued,“I know he was into music, and his parents loved that he was into music. But there was a side of him that just loved basketball and sports. And he just had a blast with that. And, that’s the part that breaks me up as I remember – him seeking me out to let me know how good he was doing. He was so happy, and I was so happy for him… He stuck with it, and he was a very determined kid, and he never gave up on anything.”
Wolfinger spoke about the relationships that are formed being part of the basketball team, the “camaraderie that is built through competing against other people as a team,” and that for Bennett, “because he was such an open person, he was open to building a relationship.”
“I remember him having to ask me about having to leave practice early to go for music… he had a passion for two things… it showed the kind of person he was, never wanting to miss anything,” Wolfinger said. “Mr. Martin texted me and let me know [about Bennett’s passing], and then I saw that it was a hit and run. And that just adds another layer of tragedy. It just hit me like a thunderbolt… It’s like a gut-punch, it brings you to your knees, it’s instant tears. [Bennett’s] youth, his exuberance, everything about him made it a more visceral thing. It just reminds you, don’t take anyone for granted. We love our kids, we love our students, we love our players. Sometimes it may seem like we’re just doing a job, but [our students] are the people we spend all our time with. My basketball team, I do look at them as an extended family, I’ve always told all my players that ‘if you ever have a problem, if you ever need to talk, if you ever need anything, please get a hold of me,’ and Blake was a part of that family.”
Jeremy Martin, the current Venice High basketball coach, said, “When I talk a lot about Blake, I look back and he’s impacted my life in ways I don’t think I could ever repay him. His dedication – he was always the last one out of the gym. Something truly special to me about Blake is that he had goals, he had dreams.”
“I’ve had many conversations with his grandfather, and his grandfather put him on a pedestal. One of my biggest memories of Blake was when Blake played the national anthem. It was probably the most chilling, probably one of the most touching, beautiful things that I’ve been through. I’ll never forget his grandfather’s smile when he played that.”
“Blake was so perfect in so many ways, I could never imagine something like that happening to Blake… Whatever he was doing, he would just smile at me like the world was okay. He was probably just riding his scooter, enjoying life, and I had chills when I read [the news]. I had to read it 10 times. He’s my kid; that’s how I remember him as his coach. All the players that I’ve coached before— they’re my family.”
“He was well-liked, loved—cared for. It didn’t matter who you were, he was your friend. He could’ve been the superstar, he could’ve been the last one on the bench. Blake didn’t say much; he was a worker, so his actions spoke louder than his words. He was a role model in so many different aspects. Me and Blake talked about it many, many times; basketball is a learning curve for life. We’re going to have many, many upside-downs, we’re going to have these moments where we’re going to have adversity. He would just work his way through, and he stayed positive.”
Bennett’s teammate, Riley Han, had met Bennett through the Pine View middle school basketball team. The two forged a bond throughout middle school and played for the Venice High School basketball team together. Han described Bennett as “one of the most genuine, kindhearted people in the world… a very sensitive, caring guy, really cared so much about his friends. He was passionate about everything, whether basketball or playing the trumpet.”
“He had a very dry sarcastic sense of humor… Goofing around with his dry, sarcastic sense of humor, goofy smile, he had a really infectious laugh and an infectious personality to be around. It was hard not to be happy when you’re around him.”
“When I met him when I was in seventh grade, we played basketball together. He was quite frankly not very good at basketball. By the time we got to high school, and he was a senior, I was a junior, he was basically the captain of the team, and he was one of the best players on our court. He was just so, so dedicated to everything he loves. And, absolutely my takeaway from him is that if you love something, you should give it your all and just work tirelessly until you’re great at it.”
Han described him as “one of the most genuine, kindhearted people in the world… a very sensitive, caring guy, really cared so much about his friends. He was passionate about everything, whether basketball or playing the trumpet.”
Two of Bennett’s friends have established a GoFundMe to assist with any expenses his family may face. In less than a day, over five thousand dollars have been raised. The link to the GoFundMe can be found here.
Principal Dr. Stephen Covert extended his best wishes to the Bennett family in an email to Pine View staff. “This is an incredible loss to the Bennett family, and the PV alumni and faculty who knew, taught, worked, and loved him. Our sincerest condolences go out to the Bennett family for their loss,” Covert said.
It would be impossible to compress all Blake Bennett meant to the Pine View community in a single article. A stellar student, jazz player, basketball player, Eagle Scout – Bennett embodied everything it meant to be a Pine View student. He leaves behind an insurmountable legacy of love, a legacy of dedication, a legacy of kindness, felt by everyone he met. For what is a legacy but the inheritance of memories one passes down to those whose hearts one touches.
Contributing reporters: Olivia Hansen, Sarah Catalano, Grace Johnson, Sarah Hassan, Joanna Malvas, Lora Rini, Felicity Chang