Bennett, whose businesses provided jobs for thousands of Harlan Countians, is remembered by his family and fellow Harlan Countians as a man who deeply cared about the coal industry and his workers.
Several coal mines owned by the Baxter operator are spread throughout Harlan and Bell counties. His son, Benjamin Bennett, serves as president of the companies, which include Manalapan Mining Company, Manalapan Land Company, Cloverfork Mining and Excavating, Left Fork Mining Company, B. & S. Trucking and Cumberland River Energies, among others.
“He's built these companies over his life. He's left us a wonderful legacy and we will continue on with his legacy and keep supporting the community,” said Benjamin Bennett.
To the coal industry, Bennett brought “a touch of class,” according to Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Caylor.
“We were very sad to learn that Mr. Bennett passed,” Caylor said Thursday. “He really was one of the last of a dying breed of independent coal operators in Kentucky. These guys were very independent and valued tradition.”
When the Harlan County Coal Association - the oldest coal association in America - closed its doors, Bennett took his company to the Kentucky Coal Association, where he served on the board of directors and the executive committee.
“He was a major part of the Harlan County Coal Association, which I always admired before it shut down,” said Caylor. “It was really sad, but when he brought his company to our organization, it added a touch of class.
“His mining style, his shrewd way of doing business, his loyalty and his compassion for the coal industry and Harlan County made him a rare example of what a coal operator ought to be today. It was truly and an honor to know him.”
To his county, Bennett left a legacy of “giving back,” said Harlan County Judge-Executive Joe Grieshop.
Last year, Bennett was honored by the Harlan County Chamber of Commerce when he received the organization's Lifetime Achievement Award. The chamber credited the coal operator with boosting tourism efforts and assisting with various other community projects, including the Clover Fork Museum at Highsplint.
When the county began to consider what economic benefits could come from adventure tourism, Grieshop said Bennett was eager to assist in pursuing the county's goal of becoming a top tourist destination. Bennett leased 6,000 acres of land for the off-road trails at Black Mountain Recreational Park.
“What he has left in the county is a legacy of being a land owner who wanted to work with his county,” said Grieshop.
To his family, Bennett left a mental image of a man who “had a very strong heart for the working people in Harlan County,” said Ruby Bennett, who married Bennett in the late 1960s.
Ruby Bennett confided that during Duane Bennett's struggle with cancer, he remained concerned about “keeping jobs in Harlan County.” When he underwent radiation for his cancer, she said he “was still at the mines.”
“He was there on the spot all the time,” she said. “He was very, very smart in production.”
And to his son, Benjamin, he left some staunch advice on how to operate a successful company.
“My father always told me this: ‘You take care of your men and your men take care of you.' That's one of the big life lessons he taught me,” Benjamin Bennett said.
Harlan Funeral Home is in charge of Bennett's funeral arrangements, which are pending.