Jack and Sharan Bennett's Love Affair With Loma Linda and Each Other
By James Ponder
For Jack and Sharan Bennett, giving, sharing and helping others is a way of life. Sometimes, they even manage to have a little fun along the way.
When Jack and Sharan Bennett tell the story of how they first met, the conversation bounces back and forth between them like a motorized beach ball.
"I'm from a little town in Arizona called Safford," Sharan recalls. "Jack and I both ended up at La Sierra College, and a lady from our church, Mrs. Romero, went to Las Vegas to work for Jack's mother."
"Every time I came home from college, she asked if I knew Sharan Knight," Jack shares. "I said no, because I was so interested in being a good student…"
"Phooey," Sharan says in faux disgust. "You played flag ball and basketball. You had a really good time in college!"
"Anyway," Jack continues, "Mrs. Romero kept asking if I knew this young lady, so finally I said I'd look her up."
But when Jack finally found the courage to do that, Sharan already had a date. "Well," a flustered Jack replied, "if you get stood up, give me a call."
Providentially, Sharan did get stood up that fateful night. But since "girls didn't do that in those days," she decided not to call Jack.
Cupid, however, had other plans. "My roommate threw a nickel at me and said, ‘I dare you!'" Sharan laughs. "So I called him."
The couple went to a Jerome Hines concert. "From that time on, we dated as much as dating could be done at that time," Jack explains, referring to school restrictions on boy-girl contact. "I broke some of the rules," he confesses.
"Yes you did," she laughs. "One day I got a call from the dean saying Jack wanted to meet me at the science building. When I got there, we went to the beach."
In 1956, it was illegal for La Sierra students to go to the beach without a chaperone. But they got away with it, had a wonderful time, and trace their identity as a couple to that day. They soon became known as an alpha pair on campus: Jack was elected as senior class president and Sharan as social activities director for the student association.
After graduating in 1958, they parted ways. Jack went to Loma Linda for medical school and Sharan, who had won an all-expenses-paid Rotary Fellowship, headed to Mexico City to study at Universidad Nacional Autómona de Mexico.
In Jack's mind, they were engaged. But Sharan—flush with the heady excitement of seeing the world on her own—wasn't sure what she wanted. When she started sending him mixed signals, Jack flew south of the border to see her.
Sharan was happy to see him and showed him around the city, but the night before Jack left, they got into an argument over whether she was coming home or not.
"My voice teacher said I needed to finish my vocal training in Italy," Sharan reports. "I told Jack and he wasn't very happy. We ended up very angry with each other."
But by the time Christmas rolled around, Sharan had made up her mind. The couple married Aug. 23, 1959, and honeymooned in Sedona.
When Jack graduated from the College of Medical Evangelists (CME) in June 1962, they embarked on a career that would lead him from an internship in Los Angeles—where son Douglas Jon was born that November—to Fort Benning, Georgia for a stint of military service. Their second child, Allyson Elaine (Ault) was born there.
"I was assigned to an airborne unit," Jack says. "I made 52 jumps."
After his discharge from the Army, Jack went into practice with Sharan's dad, also a physician, back in her hometown of Safford, Arizona, for three years. Their third child, Richard Eugene, was born there in May.
One day, Jack got a call from Loma Linda University Medical Center inviting him to take part in a general surgery residency. "We came back in 1968," he says, "and did the four-year surgery program."
During that time, their fourth and final child, Jocelyn Claire (Craig), was born. Thirty-one years later, she followed her dad's example and graduated from Loma Linda University School of Medicine in 2001.
"Our family has lots of connections to Loma Linda," Sharan notes. "My grandfather, a physician who headed the Stanborough Park Sanitarium in Watford, England, later came to the states and served as an adjunct professor at the Los Angeles campus of CME."
Spurred on to global mission, Jack and Sharan took their entourage to Mayaguez Bella Vista Hospital in Puerto Rico, where they served for seven years.
"Our children went to both Spanish and English schools and made many friends and spoke both languages very well," Jack discloses. "Loma Linda is the basis of all our medical work under the guidance of the Good Lord."
After returning home, they returned again to Safford where Jack practiced general surgery from 1981 to 2001. Sharan, meanwhile, went back to school.
"I got a master's degree in Spanish and linguistics from the University of Arizona at Tucson in 1987," she says. "Then in 1996 I got a law degree from the same school."
"Originally, I was inspired by an article," Sharan reveals, "about two elderly women lawyers in Los Angeles (my age, now!) who continued to work in a poor area of town, helping people who could pay only the minimum, probably to cover the lawyers' expenses. I thought it would be wonderful to be in a profession that could assist needy people, as long as I had most of my marbles."
She managed to keep her "marbles" and practice law, mostly family law, for the next four years until Jack decided the time had come to retire in California. Thus ended a brilliant, if mostly pro bono, legal career.
When Jack did retire in 2001, Sharan sent him to a one-day seminar in Washington, D.C. offered by an entity of the Christian Legal Society. While there, he met Bob Baker, CEO and lawyer of an organization called the Albanian Encouragement Project, an outreach organization of evangelical Christians that had entered that country following the death of Enver Hoxha, a man Jack calls "a psychotic dictator."
Baker told Jack the organization desperately needed an American physician to run a clinic in Tirana, Albania. "He kept after me and kept after me," Jack discloses. "Finally, I convinced Sharan that we should talk to him. During the conversation, Sharan told him that we are Seventh-day Adventists. He took a deep breath and said, ‘It wouldn't be a problem for me, but some of our people don't think Adventists are Christians.'"
"We prayed about it and prayed about it," Sharan says. God, apparently, considered them Christians, because after a period of time, the door opened for Jack and Sharan to minister to the people of Albania. They served in 2001 and had one of the best experiences of their lives.
"Sharan was the real missionary of the Gospel," Jack reveals. "I was always busy in the clinic."
At the clinic, Jack met an Albanian doctor, a Christian lady, who needed to get some additional training on how to teach family medicine to other doctors. After praying about it, he and Sharan pitched in to help pay for her to get the training she needed in Scotland. Today, there is a department of family medicine in a medical school in Tirana.
The Bennetts returned to Albania in 2004 with a medical/dental team from Loma Linda University. That same year, Jack went on a mission trip to Ethiopia. From 2006 to 2008, they served as representatives of Loma Linda University at Sir Run Run Shaw Hospital and Zhejiang University, both in Hangzhou, China.
"We've been vegetating since 2008," Sharan declares.
Or not. Jack remains on the faculty at the School of Medicine, non-paid status. He takes students on trips, has been on multiple mission trips to Honduras and went to Haiti to help out after the devastating earthquake in 2010. Sharan, meanwhile, has served as president, newsletter editor and mission chairperson for the Medical Auxiliary of the Loma Linda University School of Medicine. Currently, she serves as President of the Loma Linda Cultural Arts Association, an organization designed to encourage creative expression through the visual arts.
None of that is enough to occupy all their free time, so they are also involved with projects at Loma Linda University Church, where Jack served as one of the lead deacons for several years. He also conducts tours for the Little White House, a center where people donate clothing, household goods, furniture and other items for students in need. Together, they brought a Mongolian radiologist into their home for four months. "We had met him in China," Jack explains, "and I went to Mongolia and arranged for him to come here to take some advanced training."
In 2014, the Bennetts deeded their farm in Missouri to Loma Linda University Health, specifying that proceeds from its sale would benefit the Christian bioethics program in the School of Religion, the overseas residency program in the department of surgery, and Students for International Mission Service, an outreach ministry of the Global Health Institute.
Todd Mekelburg, director of planned giving at Loma Linda University Health, says the support of people like Jack and Sharan Bennett plays a vital role in helping the organization fulfill its mission to continue the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus Christ.
"Jack and Sharan Bennett exemplify the best of Loma Linda University Health," Mekelburg observes. "Their selfless concern and generosity to others have brightened the lives of people they've met all over the world. Their thoughtful gift will ensure that our work and our mission will continue to make the world a better place for generations to come."
By devoting their lives to Christian service, Jack and Sharan express their appreciation for the blessings that have come to them in life in a tangible way.
"We have a great affection for the work Loma Linda has done for us and for others," Jack concludes.