The Joseph Y. Bennett Endowment

The Joseph Y. Bennett Endowment was founded to support charitable and educational activities related to The Polymers Center.

October 30, 1944 – March 4, 2017

Early Years

Joseph Young “Joe” Bennett was born October 30, 1944 in Yancey County, North Carolina the son of the late Colonel Barlow “C.B.” Bennett and Mary Young Bennett, the fourth and last child of the family. Colonel Bennett graduated from King College in Bristol TN and was a teacher in the local grade school in Burnsville, and Joe’s mother was a teacher as well, but she taught in a private school in Mitchell County. The Bennett family was well known in the small mountain town given his mother’s family connection to the local car dealer, her brother Joe Young. At some point in Joe’s early life his father was promoted to principal in the elementary school. The schools then operated on a nine-month schedule so the Bennett family, like many families in Burnsville, supplemented their income with a small dairy farm. For the Bennett family there was never a shortage of work. Joe got along well with his siblings although his older brother Buddy does remember nearly killing him when he hit him in the head when they got into a rock-throwing contest.

Given the strong educational background of the Bennett family, Joe had little choice but to become proficient in his school work, a trait that becomes obvious in his later writings. But he was at best an indifferent student. His first love was automobiles, and as he grew up he was remarkably adept at sourcing, fixing and driving them. His namesake, the car dealer, might have had something to do with that. Even before he could drive Joe got his hands on a dilapidated Model A Ford that cost $50.00, which he got up and running in short order. He even might have been seen driving the car around town but no one can remember that since it never happened. There also was the ’44 Ford that Buddy found and bought for $60.00, and in which their father learned to drive.

While still in high school Joe found a ’47 Plymouth coupe that he brought back to life only to have his older brother James nearly destroy in a car wreck. He fixed it just in time to graduate with a working automobile.

Joe’s love of cars never abated. He and his brother Buddy set up Bennett Classics Antique Auto Museum in Forest City a decade ago in order to share with the public the many examples of yesterday’s latest fashion in automobiles that they had jointly collected. The museum is open to the public so please stop by if you’re ever in or near the town–you’ll probably find Buddy there, working on the latest addition to the collection.

Otway Burns
Burnsville, Statue of Otway Burns
1944 Ford Sedan
1944 Ford Sedan
1947 Plymouth
1947 Plymouth
Otway Burns
Bennett Classics Antique Auto Museum
Washington College Academy


Upon graduation, Joe attended Washington Academy College, then a small two-year school in Limestone TN. He hated it and decided that he was done with school. At about that same time, Joe’s aunt, Stella Campbell, who had attended Washington Academy and was then personnel director at Western Electric, during a conversation in the summer of 1962 told his father about a program then underway at Western Electric in Indianapolis, Indiana. If Joe could pass the entrance exam he could get into the Tool and Die Making program at Western Electric, in which case the company would pay for his training as well as provide a job once he graduated. At that time Western Electric was molding all the phones for AT&T and thus needed every available machinist they could produce. As luck would have it, another resident of Burnsville, Richard Hughes, who Joe had not known despite growing up in the same general area, was already in Indianapolis attending that very program. Joe made arrangements to room with Dick Hughes and drove up to Indianapolis, passed the exam and began his career.

The lanky mountain-boy was also known to cruise through a drive-in known as “The Tepee” where he met a petite blond named Sharon a year after he started at Western Electric. After three years of courting Joe and Sharon got married, and Joe began his career at Western Electric in mold making, staying in Indianapolis until 1969. Meanwhile Joe’s friend Dick Hughes had moved back to North Carolina in 1965 and taken a position at Sunbeam in Elkin, NC to help them with their molding processes. Following a circuitous route from plant to plant over the next four years, Dick ended up taking charge of a molding plant in Forest City, NC, Decorative Components, in 1969.

Realizing that he needed a good tooling engineer he phoned Joe and asked him to join him, which Joe did in October 1969. Dick even sold Joe a house right across the street in order to provide housing for his new associate. Also, the business needed logistical support because the furniture components that they molded required rapid delivery to customers scattered from Atlanta to High Point. In yet another fortuitous happenstance, Joe’s older brother Buddy had just purchased a tractor trailer rig but was having trouble finding loads out of Burnsville. Buddy took on the job of delivering Decorative Components products and over the next two years was running three trucks over the highways. Today Buddy’s business runs over three hundred fifty trailers and one hundred tractors. Unfortunately for Joe and Dick the job only lasted nine months, they were both let go.

Western Electric Plant

Western Electric Plant
(C. 1955)

The Teepee in Indianapolis IN

The Teepee in Indianapolis, IN
(c. 1965)

United Southern Industries

Undaunted, the two formed United Southern Industries in 1970 and the first plant became known as the Duke Street operation. After a year of operation Richard Hughes decided to form his own company, Mayland Enterprises, to focus on supplying materials, so the partners decided to sell United Southern to Richmond Plastics Industries, of which Jim Daniel was the owner. Joe was named Operations Manager. He was soon promoted to President and General Manager where he shared in the development of numerous markets including telecommunications and data processing equipment. By 1979, R.P. Industries bought Isoplast, Inc. in Ellenboro where in 1982 Joe was made President and General Manager of the Ellenboro operation. The following year Joe took possession of United Southern after buying out R.P. Industries. The staff included Ralf Edwards, Al Toronto, Tommy Miller, Rita Wilson and Wayne Wilson. The business grew rapidly from early 1983 to 2000. At its peak United Southern Industries generated 33 million dollars in annual sales and employed over 350 people. It had three locations and a mold making shop, and ran molding machines that varied from 25 to 1500 tons. It was certified QS 9000 in 1999 and had begun to diversify into assemblies for automotive applications. Yet in discussing the growth of United Southern after its sale Joe never dwelt on the numbers mentioned above. He preferred to note how many of his employees bought houses, cars and groceries with the wages USI was able to provide to the people of Rutherford County, and how many children got a chance to grow up in a safe North Carolina mountain town because USI was there.

One of Joe’s outstanding traits was his drive for excellence. He was a strong supporter of education. He constructed and equipped a state-of-the-art computer learning lab for his employees in order to receive onsite training in computer operation, plastic technology training through interactive courses, and access to company sponsored courses offered on the internet through several universities and colleges. Joe believed in sharing his knowledge with others and in helping his employees to bring the latest technology to the plastic industry. He was active in both SPE and SPI. In the former he was Section President c. 1984 and Councilor, c. 1985-88 and in 1991 became an Honored Service Member.

While in Council Joe noticed the need for better interaction among Councilors and Staff, the result of which was the Council Committee of the Whole. In the latter he was most active in the Molding Division and was instrumental in the placement of a satellite office in Greenville, SC. Most notably, Dick De Brule challenged Joe and the Carolinas Section of the SPE to match a $100,000 grant in honor of Richard Goolsby in the late 1980s, which Joe did nearly single-handedly, the result of which is The Richard Goolsby Scholarship. Joe went on to help establish a two-year curriculum for plastics locally at Isothermal Community College. Regarding SPI, he was a member for 30 years, serving on the National Board of Directors for some fair fraction of that time. Together with SPI and The Polymers Center of Excellence Joe was instrumental in establishing the National Plastics Certification program for machine operators through SPI and PCE. He also served on the Board of Directors of the Polymer Center of Excellence in Charlotte from its inception until his death. In 2014 Joe was inducted in the Plastics Pioneers Association a group of distinguished individuals from within the plastics industry, nationally.

The Bennett Rule

To those of us fortunate enough to count him as our friend we found in Joe a humble leadership style that was both powerful and alluring. In one notable case Joe was discussing the applicants for the Goolsby Scholarship, wherein he pointed out that while academic achievement is one criteria, it is not determinative and that passion for the industry or a commitment to a trade should count just as much. From then on those of us who serve on the committee have invoked “The Bennett Rule” at least once a session. To our committee it needs no explanation. Speaking personally, over the years as I made calls on hundreds of plastics companies and it was always remarkable how every one of them reflected the personality or values of the leadership. When you visited United Southern you immediately noticed an inviting atmosphere and a genuine interest in you and your business. Often in the past I’d phone Joe and always begin by asking if he had time for a call. He always replied, “Well, I’ll make time.” What a great answer. Without noticing I found myself adopting that and other “Joeisms.”

Final Efforts

Sometime around 2002 Joe began to suffer a series of health-related problems. He showed some symptoms of an unusual chorea at his Mother’s funeral around 2002. Over the next five years or so it got worse despite all kinds of treatments. He had to give up his role in United Southern because he simply could not work. Around 2009 he began a series of treatments with an experiment drug that completely knocked out the chorea. It seemed like a miracle, could it be that Joe’s health problems were behind him? Despite his recovery the recession hit United Southern hard and Joe sold it off in 2010. It was a bitter blow to Joe but those of us who knew him were happy to trade the loss of his business for the gain of his health.

Just as the treatment seemed to be working he suffered a nearly-fatal accident. He was holding a team of horses that his brother Buddy was attempting to hitch to a buggy. The horses reared back and fell on Joe, crushing all his ribs and puncturing his lungs. One helicopter ride and five transfusions later he pulled through but was bed ridden for three months. Oddly it seemed that Joe was again making a deal for the better because as a result of the accident he found that he no longer needed his chorea medication, it had completely disappeared.

Joe began an aggressive rehab program and seemed better than he had in years. But unbeknownst to everyone the drugs had done their damage. Following a biopsy he discovered that he had bladder cancer that had metastasized in his lungs. That was in the summer of 2015 and he was given six to nine months, he lived another eighteen.

Google the word leadership and it returns 867,000 results–clearly it is one of the hottest topics of the day. Just recently a writer for Forbes tells us that leadership is about sacrifice, humility and service. If so, Joe exemplified it. But it seems that there is a much subtler definition, one that we employ everyday without noticing it. A leader is simply someone who we want to follow, and for many of us in the Carolinas Joe was that person. He never sought leadership positions, we put him in them. While there he worked tirelessly to deserve them, and once finished, he never sought recognition. That’s a man worth following.

Following his death many of us in the Carolinas Section of SPE wanted to recognize Joe for all the efforts he so selflessly put into our industry. So herewith the Joe Bennett Endowment, a living testimony to our friend and the leader of our efforts.