‘He was the little tramp that people loved’

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Photo above: Members of the Funeral Honors team from Fort Stewart, Ga., stretch the flag over the casket carrying the remains of Nathaniel Rufus Bennett who died recently. Bennett was a veteran of the military. Photos by Bob Sofaly.

Nathaniel Rufus Bennett
Nathaniel Rufus Bennett

By Sally Mahan

A Beaufort icon has passed away at the age of 64.

Nathaniel Rufus Bennett, a well-known presence for many years in downtown Beaufort, died of natural causes on Dec. 11 at Beaufort Memorial Hospital.

Bennett, a military veteran, is survived by his children Sirica Bennett, LaToy Bennett Field and Jermaine Mike. He was buried on Dec. 19 at the Beaufort National Cemetery with military honors.

Bennett could be charming, but he could also be a rascal. He was known by practically every business owner in the downtown area as he pan-handled. But even when he was kicked out of local businesses or restaurants, they would send him on his way with a hot meal or some change.

In fact, restaurants like Luther’s and Plums fed him regularly and Bricks on Boundary gave him food practically every other day. His drink of choice was always Sprite with no ice or ginger ale.

Bennett, who was a graduate of Beaufort High School, lived in a group residential care home on Duke Street, but he was almost always walking around asking for money or food and asking after people’s families. He never called anyone by their given name, but rather would call them things like “boss” or “mama” or “chief.”

He would also remember all sorts of facts about people, like the dates of their children’s birthdays.

But he could also get himself into trouble.

He spent a fair amount of time in jail for a variety of misdemeanors, and that’s how he met Tim Newman, his friend of many years.

Newman, a retired Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputy, said he met Bennett when he arrested him about 25 years ago.

“My first encounter with him was putting him in jail. Back then I wasn’t a fan,” said Newman. “He was a problem once in while and he had some demons and could be abrasive. When he was having a bad day he would steal a waitress’ tip, yet even then people still loved him the next day.”

Newman said Bennett was much calmer as he aged. “He definitely mellowed as got older,” he said.

In fact, Newman and Bennett ultimately became pals, with Newman often driving Bennett to various places around town or buying him food.

Bennett truly was dependent on the kindness of strangers.

“Grace is a tough thing. But Beaufort has a lot of grace when it comes to people like him,” said Newman.

And many people loved Bennett.

“I knew there would be an outpouring when I heard that he died,” said Newman, “but I had 5,000 shares about his death on my Facebook page and I only have about 500 friends on Facebook! I never knew his outreach was that amazing.”

Bennett also had a Facebook page where his personality was on full display (he defined his business as a “self-employed hustler”). Posts on his page went like so:

• “got in a fight with gizmo last night, it was pretty even til he swung at me with his half crutch”

• “coming out swinging like tiger woods wife”

• “air conditioning at the group home broke just in time for the heat. ive been put in charge of beggin for money for the repairs”

Bennett had hundreds of friends on Facebook and those folks came through for the funeral.

When Newman started a Go Fund Me page to collect the $8,000 needed for the services, he raised $3,500 in less than a day. 

However, his daughter, LaToy, was able to pay for the funeral with disability funds.

“Even after I closed the page the next day so many people still wanted to pay for the funeral. I even had friends in Montana who wanted to help,” said Newman.

He was so beloved in Beaufort that one of the bartenders downtown started a makeshift memorial that now has balloons, flowers, pictures, candles and hundreds of sympathy messages.

Newman said he attributes the outpouring to southern traditions.

“Even though you might be labeled as crazy or a jerk, people still care. And it doesn’t matter if you have the means to take care of yourself, Beaufort still gives.

“I never saw him drunk or anything,” said Newman. “He was a bit touched, but the South is famous for loving the ones who are touched.

“A lot of people loved him. It’s really a story about him and Beaufort. He was the little tramp that people loved.”

Candles, balloons and other mementos have been left at a memorial to Nathaniel Rufus Bennett at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.
Candles, balloons and other mementos have been left at a memorial to Nathaniel Rufus Bennett at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.

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