Fred Bentley Sr. left footprints across Cobb County
The former state legislator had a hand in founding or shaping much of what is now taken for granted: what had been Kennesaw Junior College and is now Kennesaw State University; the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce, which he’d served as president; the Cobb County Commission; the Cobb County Bar Association, of which he was the last original member; the Marietta/Cobb Museum of Art and local service agencies.
A longtime player in legal and political circles, Bentley also had a consuming interest in arts and history. He collected paintings, rare books and historical artifacts. He donated a substantial number of the books and art to institutions such as KSU, home to the Fred Bentley Rare Book Museum, the University of Georgia and Brenau University in Gainesville.
The seventh-generation Cobb Countian also influenced a generation of other leaders.
“He was a hero to me,” said Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin. “A good friend to me and to my father as well. He was one of the pioneers who helped make Cobb County what it is today.”
Bentley, 92, died Oct 3. A memorial service will be held Oct. 26 at 2 p.m., at Roswell Street Baptist Church, 774 Roswell Street in Marietta.
The Kennesaw native was born in 1926 to parents who never got beyond grade school and plowed behind a mule. Bentley took advantage of better opportunities. The Marietta High School and Presbyterian College graduate earned a law degree at age 23 from Emory University.
Not long after founding his law firm in 1948 — now Bentley, Bentley and Bentley with his sons — politics beckoned. The young attorney served in the Georgia House from 1951-57 and in the Georgia Senate following that.
“Dad used to say he stopped more bad legislation than any other person, because he sponsored the legislation that limited the Georgia House and Senate to 40 days (of work) a year,” said son Fred Bentley, Jr. On the local level, Bentley Sr. was instrumental in changing Cobb’s then-single-commissioner form of government to a board of commissioners, feeling it better reflected the needs of a growing county.
He also served several local governments at attorney. As city attorney for Kennesaw, he wrote the measure enacted in 1982 requiring every head of household to own a gun. That controversial local law drew national attention, jeers from those who said it was unenforceable, and cheers from gun rights activists.
Former Governor Roy Barnes recalls Bentley as “very methodical and very prepared” in his legal business.
That attention to detail and pugnacious spirit was in full cry on one occasion in particular, said son R. Randall Bentley Sr.
“One of the first things I had the pleasure of watching him in was his going up against Roy Barnes in condemnation cases. There were two in a row that day. I have to admit they were so at each other — even though they were good friends — that I looked at it and thought ‘if this is what the practice of law is going to be about, it’s going to be rough.’”
A devoted member of Kennesaw United Methodist Church, he participated in Sunday services and led lay witness missions throughout the U.S. His sons said their dad handed out tens of thousands of crosses to people that he met. It wasn’t unusual, they said, to meet someone whose first words were “your dad gave me a cross ten years ago.”
For all of his generosity, Bentley kept some treasures to himself. Stepping into his law office near Marietta square is like visiting a one-room museum
Fred Jr. and Randall delight in showing off their dad’s most defining artifacts. First editions of Twain and Dickens. A petrified dinosaur egg. An Egyptian mummy. An elaborately worded call to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. A “life mask” of Abraham Lincoln as well as a bronze cast of Lincoln’s knuckles. Paintings and, above the mantle, locks of hair from presidents Georgia Washington and Lincoln.
“That’s getting just a bit eclectic,” Randall Bentley said, “but you never know when you might need DNA.”
Serving in the Navy during World War II, the senior Bentley claimed to hold the Navy’s broad jump record, because the service branch canceled the event the year after he won. His sons recall that into his 70s, Bentley was able to stand flat-footed just back from a chair and jump completely over it. As he aged, that turned into jumping over only the lower part of the chair. Their stepmother finally laid down the law to stop it.
His more whimsical side also showed itself in his friendship with the Rev. Nelson Price of Roswell Street Baptist Church. His family said both were notorious April Fool’s Day jokesters, with Price one year putting a velvet painting of the last supper festooned with Christmas lights above each disciple in Bentley’s front yard. For his part, Bentley would respond with pranks like decorating Price’s yard with a flock of plastic pink flamingos.
Cobb Superior Court Judge Robert Flournoy, who once practiced law just two doors away from the Bentleys, summed the man up.
“He was just very interested in all aspects of life,” he said.
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