ESTHER LOUISE LAIOLA BENNETT
The information below has been compiled from a variety of sources. If the reader has access to information that can be documented and that will correct or add to this woman’s biographical information, please contact the Nevada Women’s History Project.
At A Glance:
Born: January 19, 1917, Reno, Nevada
Died: April 22, 2007, Reno, Nevada
Maiden Name: Esther Louise Laiola
Race/Nationality/Ethnic Background: Caucasian
Primary City and County of Residence and Work:
Reno, Washoe County
Major Fields of Work: Education
Other Role Identities: Wife
Reno elementary teacher, rodeo queen drew lasting lessons from nature
Esther Bennett, whose name graces a north Reno elementary school, lived a full life that affected thousands of students in part, she said, because, she’s “hyper. I have to stay busy or I’ll go crazy.” That dynamism was reflected in everything she did.
A second-generation Nevadan, she was born Esther Louise Laiola on January 19, 1917, at home on the old 101 Ranch, on what is now Longley Lane, to Juanita Capurro and Peter Laiolo. She called herself the son they wanted but never had. She started riding horses at age 3 and never quit. “My earliest memories are of being on a pony, tethered to my father’s saddle horn while he went out to check on the hired cowboys and foreman.”
She was an avid cowgirl until her mother overheard her scolding her goat in what she called “cowboy language.” Her mother decided it was time to teach Esther some etiquette and music instead. She took classes in both and became an accomplished pianist, a skill that later helped her land her first teaching job.
But her love of all things cowboy never waned. She was the first Miss Reno Rodeo in 1937. She was pleased at the appointment, but her excitement was dimmed when she found out she could not ride in the rodeo parade on her horse, but had to wear a formal long dress with a train and ride in a stagecoach. She later said, “I had a maid in waiting, ladies in waiting….I’d have rather been on a horse.” Fifty years later, the Reno Rodeo Association honored her with the title of Grand Marshall of the parade. And in 1998, as the honorary Reno Rodeo Queen, her dream finally came true when she was allowed to ride a horse in the parade. She eventually bought the 101 Ranch, owned 32 acres and at one time had 27 horses, which she used to teach riding to area horse enthusiasts.
After graduating from Reno High School, she went to the University of Nevada and, before finishing her bachelor’s degree, started teaching in Smith Valley with a “normal degree.” This was a two-year education program common in the Depression years when four years of college tuition was too expensive for many. She loved teaching fifth-graders there and used her piano skills to produce an operetta at the school. She also worked in a dress shop and commuted to Reno for night classes. The state superintendent eventually allowed her to move back to Reno and teach even before she’d completed her bachelor’s degree, a move not allowed today.
For a while in the 1940s Esther was lured by the lights of the big city and left education to work in New York City as a flight attendant and model. But teaching never was far from her mind. She convinced Columbia University to let her audit education classes while in NYC. It was there she learned, from a Miss Rubison, the concept of “whole language” teaching, an integrative approach with all subjects. “I learned to structure an atmosphere which would spark an interest in school and learning, making it exciting,” she explained in a 1997 interview with Terri Sprenger-Farley in UNR’s Silver and Blue magazine. This newfound knowledge helped encourage her to stop her world traveling and return to Reno to teach again.
She described teaching as a “fine, rewarding profession,” and many of her students considered her a very fine teacher, as well. They learned about responsibility from her constant menagerie of classroom critters. In spring, she would have a setting hen and have her children keep track of the eggs’ gestation. “Mrs. Mother Hen,” as the children called one chicken, drew the attention of the Nevada State Journal in 1953, which wrote a story about the impending blessed event.
In autumn, she’d often have caterpillars which students could follow through the chrysalis stage into full butterfly adulthood. She used the animals, which included students’ additions of hamsters, gerbils, lizards, crickets, rabbits and snakes, to teach science, of course, but also English (“Butter-fly; a compound word”); math (“How many days until those eggs hatch?”); and responsibility (“Power comes with the sense of control over an animal. Sometimes today’s students are neglected at home,” she said, and need a sense of power over something.)
Bennett said the most rewarding part of teaching is when “they hang on your legs and say “you’re my bestest teacher, Mrs. Bennett.” When she retired, the Reno Gazette Journal asked for former students’ comments, and many reflected that first-grader’s assessment. Jeanette Martin said, “She always had a way of making you feel important. She remembers students like she had them yesterday.” Karen Walker added, “She wore high heels and her hair was always done. She was the teacher and perfect woman…really unique….with a very strong will.” Nick Skaggs remembered that “her secret was how she talked to students.” And Martha MacKay did her student teaching with Bennett, remembering how she’d stay at school until 5 or 6 every night to set interesting activities up for her students. “Her secret was her love of life, people, and little kids. Nobody could forget her.”
One parent of two students remembered thinking Bennett taught things his first-grade twins would never remember, but other parents assured her they would. One told her, “They will remember these lessons for the rest of their lives.” She continued, “I had her for a teacher 27 years ago, and I still hear Mrs. Bennett whisper the magic formula to sound out a word or to understand the meaning by finding the root.”
Over the years, she taught at Kate Smith, Grace Warner, Orvis Ring, and McKinley Park elementary schools, and the longest stint, 36 years in first grade, at Hunter Lake Elementary School. She had several different last names, but most of her thousands of students knew her as Esther Bennett.
When she retired in 1996, after 57 years of teaching, she stored her years of teaching materials in her empty 12-foot-deep indoor swimming pool. She contemplated having former colleagues, “the girls,” go through it. She’d already given much of it away to the 75 student teachers at UNR she shepherded through their inaugural semesters in the classroom. She was honored for her assistance in supervising UNR College of Education students at a special reception in 1970. In 2000, she received the ultimate honor of having a school named after her, Esther Bennett Elementary School in Sun Valley.
In addition to her teaching and rodeo activities, Bennett was active in the Twentieth Century Club, the Reno Emblem Club, the Washoe County Teachers Association, and Little Flower Catholic Church. She had one son, Gary, three grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
Esther L. Bennett passed away at the age of 90 on April 22, 2007, with her family by her side. She is entombed at Reno’s Mountain View Cemetery.
Biography researched by Patti Bernard and written by Kitty Falcone. Posted to website April 2018.
- “Bride Elect Honored Here.” Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), May 17, 1942, p 4:1.
- “Appointments Announced Here by U.S. Regents.” Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), October 23, 1951, p 2:3.
- “Mother Hen Has Engrossed Audience.” Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), April 19, 1953, p 3:2.
- “Easter Bonnets Feature Program for Club Women.” Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), March 7, 1955, p 6:1.
- “Night in Hawaii theme of social for club husbands.” Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), November 13, 1962, p6:3.
- “Legal Fight Brews Over Insurance.” Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), May 11, 1963, p 18:1.
- “Supervisors Teachers To Be Honored.” Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), May 26, 1970, p 19:4.
- “Swenson-Bennett.”, Reno Evening Gazette (Reno, Nevada), August 17, 1970, p 9:1.
- “Showing the responsibility of Care”, Reno Evening Gazette, (Reno, Nevada), October 3, 1970, p 11:1.
- “Esther Louise Bennett.”, Social Security Applications and Claims, 1936-2007.
- “Former pupils say goodbye to teacher.” Reno Gazette-Journal (Reno, Nevada), June 6, 1996, p A9:1.
- Sprenger-Farley, Terri, “You be the Sun.” Silver & Blue Magazine, Reno, Nevada, January/February 1997. p 24-26. Cover Photo by Jeff Ross.
- Burns, Heather, “First Miss Reno Rodeo gets to ride in new role.”Reno Gazette-Journal, June 21, 1998, p 1:2, Sec. More Weddings.
- Whitney, Rich, “Nevada Spirit.” Reno Rodeo Program, June 20-28, 1998, unpaged.
- “Eugene Joseph OShaw, Reno Gazette-Journal (Reno, Nevada), April 9, 2001, p 15.4.
- “Esther L. Bennett.” Reno Gazette-Journal (Reno, Nevada), April 22, 2007, p C6:1.
- “Esther L. Oshaw-Bennett.” Find a Grave, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/144285539
- 1920; Census Reno, Washoe, Nevada; Roll: T625_1005; Page: 5B; Enumeration District: 58. (Ester Lailo)
- 1930; Census Place: Reno, Washoe, Nevada; Page: 2B; Enumeration District: 0015. (Esther Leiolo)
- 1940; Census Place: Smith Valley, Lyon, Nevada; Roll: m-t0627-02279; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 10-7. (Esther L. Laiola)