Derickson "Dery" W. Bennett, 79, a pioneering environmentalist who crusaded to protect fragile coastal areas from pollution and overdevelopment, died Tuesday at Riverview Medical Center in Red Bank, N.J.

No cause of death was given, but Mr. Bennett had been in hospice care.

Mr. Bennett, of Fair Haven, Monmouth County, was one of the founders of the American Littoral Society and helped spawn the movement that championed the federal Clean Water Act and environmental legislation in New Jersey and elsewhere.

"He loved the coast and the ocean, and there was no boundary between his life and his work," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the 10,000-member group. Based in Sandy Hook, N.J., it is dedicated to protecting coastal environments on the East Coast and lobbies on coastal land use and water quality.

After serving as executive director since 1968, Mr. Bennett became the society's director of special projects in 2003, which allowed him to focus on things he cared deeply about, including educating children about the environment and working on hot-button issues such as public beach access at the Jersey Shore, Dillingham said.

With his tousled white hair, Mr. Bennett often looked as if he had just stepped off the beach when he testified at public hearings and legislative sessions. In contentious meetings, with opposing sides yelling and name-calling, Mr. Bennett was a voice of reason - and levity.

"He did have a quick wit, and he was a gentleman," Dillingham said. "Even if he was your adversary, he treated you with respect."

Mr. Bennett was "a visionary" who saw coastal development occurring and recognized "what its impact was going to be on the environment before anyone else was even talking about it," Dillingham said.

Mr. Bennett was born in Merion and summered with his family in Avalon, N.J. He earned a bachelor's degree in geology from Amherst College in Massachusetts and was a diver in the Navy. When home on leave, he would head straight to Avalon and remain barefoot until he had to go back, Dillingham recalled Mr. Bennett saying.

Mr. Bennett was a reporter for the Main Line Times, an editor, and a teacher early in his career. When he founded the American Littoral Society during the politically radical late 1960s, Mr. Bennett said, it was easy to rally followers.

"He always said [that] when people could see things like raw sewage and medical waste washing up on the beaches, it easy to get them interested," Dillingham said. "But in later years, when we started talking about issues in more scientific ways, in 'parts per billion,' it became more difficult."

Mr. Bennett wrote several books, including Secrets of Bluefishing and Fish Stories, a Seaside Reader, and edited the society's journal, Underwater Naturalist, whose January edition he had just finished.

"He was truly a man of the sea and he worked for that cause right up until the end," Dillingham said.

He is better known for helping legislators develop regulations including the Clean Water Act and the state Coastal Zone Management Act, which has helped limit development on the Shore's barrier islands, said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

He served on numerous government committees and councils dealing with issues including offshore drilling, coastal land use, the marine habitat, and water quality.

Tittel noted that Mr. Bennett was among the first in the movement to reach out to fishermen, baymen, boaters, and others who were not considered environmental advocates. They loved the ocean, too, Mr. Bennett reasoned, and their concerns and input were valuable.

But Mr. Bennett's greatest contribution may have been his mentoring of a generation of coastal advocates, Tittel said.

"Dery has been an inspiration to all of us when it comes to protecting the environment and this planet we love," Tittel said. "He had a strong commitment to environmental principles, but always worked with a smile and a twinkle in his eye."

Mr. Bennett is survived by his wife, Barbara; daughters Melanie and Becca; and three grandchildren.

A memorial gathering will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Thompson Memorial Home, 310 Broad St., Red Bank. A memorial service is planned for sometime in February in Sandy Hook.

Memorial donations be made to the American Littoral Society, 18 Hartshorne Dr., Suite 1, Highlands, N.J. 07732.

Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or jurgo@phillynews.com.