Ann Bednarski: Don Bently: A Nevada treasure
October 21, 2012
The most memorable day I experienced during my first year here in Northwest Nevada happened on a dreary, not quite rainy day in April 1996. I had the grand pleasure of spending a whole Saturday with the brilliant Don Bently. Prior to that tour of his ranches I interviewed him at the main building of his company. It was a short interview and consisted of a view of the many awards and recognitions Mr. Bently had received as the founder and CEO of Bently Nevada Corporation. I met Agnes Muszynska, his research and travel partner, a world renowned scientist like Don from Warsaw, Poland. My ancestors came from Poland; we exchanged greetings in Polish. At the end of my interview they presented me with a booklet Agnes had prepared for Mr. Bently’s 70th Birthday on Oct. 18, the same date his recent memorial service was held. That tribute to Don Bently by his friends and associates is one of my favorite treasures.
Mr. Bently invited me to take a tour of his ranches and properties on Saturday. I eagerly accepted. We met there at 9 a.m.; he said he only had about an hour, apologizing that this tour would be short adding, “I’m ‘Don’, you’re ‘Ann’, got it?” And off we went.
We went to all the buildings that comprised Bently-Nevada. I asked him how he found this location, as it seemed rather hidden and few people even knew there was a place called Minden. He said a friend of his had driven through Douglas County and saw an abandoned airplane hangar for sale. This friend casually mentioned the hangar to Don and flew him from Berkeley, Calif., to a place near it. Don Bently said he bought it on a handshake the day he first saw it and incorporated his business the same day. When I commented he must be forever grateful to this friend, he said, “We never saw each other again; he had his work to do and I, well I had mine, and now a place to do it.” He added, “We both did well.”
I was curious about his childhood. He proudly told me he grew up in Iowa on a farm. His father owned a bowling alley. Don said he had to clean the bowling pins and alleys and described his childhood as one where working hard and pitching in were the values he learned. He said he thought his interest in engineering stemmed from that bowling alley. When I told him my family owned a bar and restaurant in Cleveland’s industrial area, so we too had many responsibilities to keep things going. I said, “While you were cleaning bowling pins, I was peeling potatoes and carrots to get ready for the factory workers’ lunch.” He was amused. What was so remarkable and memorable is we traded stories and discovered many similarities in how we were raised and encouraged by our families.
The complex of buildings was interesting; I was most impressed with the ranches and innovative way that Don Bently commingled with nature. He had devised an irrigation system. On our tour he wanted to adjust something in that system. He asked me to hold his legs while he lay on the ground adjusting some part that was about a foot into the reservoir of water. I was happy to help and informed him I had lifesaving skills, but not planning on a rescue. He said, “I feel safer now; don’t worry,” and laughed.
Don showed me the visiting eagle’s rock, the coyote’s den, and pointed out the dark and light greens of his crops. I was fascinated by a dam with strategically placed rocks for flood/erosion control. We stood there looking at these rocks; I commented the dam and rock arrangement needed music because it looked like nature’s symphony assembled there on the ranch. He seemed to like that because he asked me where the string section of this symphony was located. I remember well standing there with him for a few minutes when he agreed with the foliage and water, music would fit well. I thought he was very much in concert with nature.
The day was not dreary for me despite the overcast skies. Our tour lasted all day; yet it seemed like a short time. I remember that day with Don Bently as an opportunity to know one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. He was always thinking and innovating with no pretense about him.
When we returned to my car, I thanked him and told him Benjamin Franklin likely would have learned a lot from him. He agreed. What a treasure this man was to Carson Valley since 1961. From there, that little spot on the map, he became recognized worldwide as an inventor, scientist, pioneer of technology, and gave opportunity to many people. A man of integrity, Don Bently is truly a Nevada treasure.
• Ann Bednarski of Carson City is a career educator and journalist.