Penn State mourns loss of philanthropist and alumna Edna Bennett Pierce

portrait of Edna Bennett Pierce
Edna Bennett Pierce

Penn State is mourning the loss of one of its most generous philanthropists and alumni, Edna Bennett Pierce, whose nearly six decades of support have made a monumental impact on the College of Health and Human Development (HHD) and the University community. Bennett Pierce died on July 22 at the age of 90.

“Edna’s philanthropy has had and will continue to have a profound impact on Penn State, the College of Health and Human Development, and the well-being of children, youth and families around the nation and beyond through the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, the Bennett Playground, three endowed professorships and two graduate fellowships, as well as many other contributions to our mission and our strength,” said Craig J. Newschaffer, Raymond E. and Erin Stuart Schultz Dean of the College of Health and Human Development. “She has left an indelible mark on HHD and the greater Penn State community.”

Throughout her life, Bennett Pierce gave back generously to her alma mater and believed passionately in the mission of HHD. Her philanthropic vision resulted in the creation of the Bennett Playground Endowment; the Bennett Endowment for Children and Adolescents; three endowed professorships focused on caring and compassion; an early career professorship; the C. Eugene Bennett Chair in Prevention Research; the Edna P. Bennett Faculty Fellows Fund in Prevention Research in Human Development and Family Studies; two graduate fellowship endowments, including the Karl Freeman Peterson Graduate Fellowship, named in memory of her father; and the Alice Gordon Peterson Trustee Scholarship, established in memory of her mother.

Born Edna Irene Peterson in 1932, in Rochester, Pennsylvania, she was raised in Beaver, Pennsylvania, where she graduated from high school in 1949. From the beginning, she was a fierce advocate for families and wanted to work to better their lives. A member of Penn State’s “Famous 500,” the first class of women admitted to the University after World War II, Bennett Pierce followed her love of children, studying nutrition and home economics and completing her degree in 1953. During her time as a student, Bennett Pierce was a member of the Delta Zeta sorority, the Treble Singers, the Penn State Players, the Association of Childhood Educators International (ACEI) and Omicron Nu, an organization for students majoring in home economics.

Planning for a career in early childhood education, Bennett Pierce ultimately stayed at home to raise her six children. Her experiences as a parent and grandparent informed and reinforced her determination to make the lives of others better.

“Edna often said, ‘You can change the world, one little child at a time.’ Throughout her life as a philanthropist, she did just that,” said Newschaffer. “Her philanthropic legacy will ring through the generations — beyond her children and grandchildren — and will impact cohorts of students, faculty and researchers for years to come.”

Bennett Pierce had long been involved with activities to nurture children’s well-being at Penn State. She and her first husband, the late C. Eugene Bennett, began this journey together with a key gift in 1988 toward the construction of a playground at HHD’s Child Development Laboratory. In an interview for a 1999 issue of the College of Health and Human Development’s magazine, Bennett Pierce recalled, “After the playground, we knew that eventually, we would want to do more than that.” She ultimately provided the funding needed for the Bennett Family Center, a state-of-the-art child care center and the first free-standing facility of its kind on Penn State’s University Park campus. She later made a gift to fuel the revitalization of the Living Center in HHD’s Henderson Building, naming it the Bennett Pierce Living Center.

The focus on promoting health and well-being for individuals, families and schools by preventing negative outcomes such as addiction, violence and school failure before they occur was a passion for Bennett Pierce. She had a vision to bring the considerable research capacity of Penn State to bear on the complex problems facing children and families in poverty and to give them the skills and support to thrive. Her vision came alive with a gift to establish the Edna P. Bennett Chair in Prevention Research in 1994, which was later revised and changed to the Edna P. Bennett Faculty Fellows Fund in Prevention Research in Human Development and Family Studies. Bennett Pierce continued to provide support to prevention research at Penn State, and her support was honored with the naming of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center in 2013.

Mark Greenberg, founding director of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, explained, “Edna Bennett Pierce lived a life of generosity and compassion. She had a vision that promoting well-being for all children and families was the highest form of philanthropy. I was so fortunate to work closely with Edna for over 20 years and to lead prevention research that realized her vision. Her philanthropy and commitment to prevention science helped to transform the PRC into the vibrant interdisciplinary community it is today.”

Bennett Pierce and Greenberg’s collaboration began immediately upon his arrival at Penn State in 1998. Greenberg came to the University with the goal to create a research center focused on the prevention of serious difficulties and the promotion of well-being in children and their caregivers, a goal that Bennett Pierce fully supported. Their mutual desire to promote care and compassion evolved the center into a robust prevention science community that provides support for research, develops effective interventions, partners with communities and works to mentor new researchers, all with the goal to increase health equity and help both children and families thrive. Since its inception, the PRC has focused on studying and disseminating the effects of school, family, community-based and multi-level programs designed to prevent poor outcomes and promote well-being.

Stephanie Lanza, C. Eugene Bennett Chair in Prevention Research and current director of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, explained, “When I joined the PRC as director in 2018, because of Edna's generous endowment of my position, it was as if she was waiting there to welcome me with open arms and support. Her gifts have a much more substantial impact than simply providing financial support for prevention research. Her generous endowments have created a community that is threaded together by a culture of shared motivation to play our part in improving the human condition."

Bennett Pierce’s support was recognized University-wide in 2012, when she was named Penn State’s Philanthropist of the Year, and her contributions extended into her volunteerism. She served on volunteer committees for HHD during two University-wide fundraising campaigns, including serving as honorary chairperson for the college’s committee for the “Grand Destiny” campaign and was invited to be a presidential counselor. Bennett Pierce also was a member of the University’s Mount Nittany Society and its Elm Circle, the highest recognition for Penn State donors.

“Edna’s thoughts would often dwell on what she would leave behind and what we owe to those who come after us,” said Newschaffer. “She dedicated her life to caring for children and her community, and to encouraging the world to practice both mindfulness and compassion. In her wake, she leaves a legacy of philanthropy and empathy that we should all strive to emulate.”

In a 1999 issue of the College of Health and Human Development’s magazine, Bennett Pierce explained, “Not everyone can do what I’ve done, but like a child, we must make steps in our own way, one after another, after another, on a path of giving back and reinvesting in what we hold dear. I feel that way about my children, about society’s children and about Penn State. It’s a perfect combination.”

She was predeceased by her first husband, C. Eugene Bennett, who stamped his own philanthropic legacy across Penn State. She is survived by her husband, A. Duer Pierce Jr., as well as her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be private. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be sent to Silverside Church, 2800 Silverside Rd, Wilmington, DE, 19810; or to the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center at Penn State.