Bennett Powell

Bennett Powell, seen in 1990, was the driving force behind creation of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, now known as the Ponchartrain Conservancy. Powell died Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, at age 83.

Bennett Powell, whose determination to clean up Lake Pontchartrain led him to create the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, died Monday at Ochsner Medical Center of multiple myeloma. He was 83.

A lifelong New Orleanian, Powell enjoyed being able to see the lake’s bottom when he went boating as a teenager, and eating seafood from the lake without worrying about pollutants the marine life might have ingested.

In a 1989 Times-Picayune interview, Powell said those memories hit him the previous year when he looked out upon the lake from a window in Metairie and saw neither boats nor people in what had been his aquatic playground. That abandoned panorama got him thinking about the importance of cleaning up the lake, said his daughter Merriman Mathewson: “I just remember his saying, ‘It has to be done to preserve our lake -- all of the organisms in the lake as well as preserving the ecosystem.’”

Bennett Powell

Bennett Powell, center, chair of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, is seen at a 1991 Back to the Beach fundraiser with Greg Gambel, left, and Susan Johnson.

Powell, who was at the time a member of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Commission, persuaded his fellow commissioners to underwrite a study of lake pollution, and he persuaded Louisiana legislators to create the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, now known as the Pontchartrain Conservancy. He was the first chair of the foundation’s board.

“He was really driven by his passion,” said Robert Thomas, a Loyola University environmental science professor who knew Powell from Thomas’ days as director of the Louisiana Nature Center.

“That was what he thought about 24/7. That’s what makes a good leader. When you’re with somebody who’s passionate about issues, it comes through very strongly. Bennett was that kind of a guy. He was always trying to do well, and it was absolutely obvious.”

Powell was no scientist, and he never tried to meddle in the minutiae of foundation operations, said Carlton Dufrechou, the foundation’s director from 1992 to 2009.

“He just set up a goal: Clean up the lake and make the damned thing swimmable,” said Dufrechou, now the causeway’s general manager.

'Save Our Lake'

Under the banner “Save Our Lake,” one of the foundation’s first goals was to ban shell dredging in the lake. In the 1989 interview, Powell, who led a regular Bible study group, said: "If you didn't put anything in the lake that God didn't want put in and you didn't take out anything that God didn't want taken out, the lake would clean itself. Those shells are in the bottom of the lake for some reason."

Opposition from dredging companies was fierce. It even included anonymous threatening telephone calls to Powell’s home. “He was afraid they were going to come after him,” said his wife, Evon Ann Swain Powell.

But the foundation stood firm, and it also backed improvements to sewerage and drainage in parishes surrounding the lake. By 2006, much of the lake was declared safe for recreation.

Powell resigned from the foundation in 1992, amid an outcry over the board’s abrupt firing of its executive director.

Insurance broker

A graduate of Jesuit High School, Powell had joined his father’s Powell Insurance Inc. after graduating from Tulane University with a business degree. He built the firm into Louisiana’s largest independent insurance brokerage, his family said. He also founded Creative Risk Controls Inc., a self-insurance risk-management firm.

He sold both firms to Gallagher Insurance in 2007 and retired in 2013, Mathewson said.

An important part of Powell’s life was his faith and his belief in the power of prayer. According to the 1989 interview, he learned the importance of prayer and working with less fortunate people in the early 1980s, when a relative was treated for chemical dependency.

Bennett Powell

Evon and Bennett Powell pose at the Galatoire’s Foundation Mardi Gras Table Auction benefiting Galatoire’s Foundation, Boys Hope Girls Hope of Greater New Orleans and the New Orleans Mission at Galatoire's restaurant on Jan. 11, 2016.

That experience “woke up a sleeping giant” and led him to give his time and money to such causes, said Benjamin Toledano Jr., president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a Powell beneficiary.

Powell was a president of the New Orleans Mission board and a member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

“If anybody was on a mission from God, it was Bennett,” Dufrechou said. “He didn’t try to evangelize or impose his beliefs on anyone, [but] if he thought he could help someone, he would offer to listen.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, survivors include a son, Bennett “Bo” Powell Jr. of Fort Worth, Texas; a daughter, Jennifer O’Brien of Metairie; and eight grandchildren.

A funeral will be held Saturday at 1 p.m. at Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home, 5100 Pontchartrain Blvd., New Orleans. Visitation will begin at 11:30 a.m.

Burial will be private.

CORRECTION:?Merriman?Mathewson's first name was incorrectly reported in earlier versions of this article.

Contact John Pope at [email protected].