City mourns man who re­built town-gown bond

Doug Ben­net’s commitment to Mid­dle­town ‘sec­ond to none’

The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT) - - Front Page - By Cassandra Day

MID­DLE­TOWN — Douglas Ben­net, 15th pres­i­dent of Wes­leyan Uni­ver­sity, and, by all ac­counts, a man who trans­formed the city’s re­la­tion­ship with the lib­eral arts in­sti­tu­tion on the hill, died Mon­day.

He was 79. Ben­net, who lived at Es­sex Mead­ows with his wife, Midge, also had a home in Had­lyme.

He came to his uni­ver­sity post in 1995 as one­time as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state for in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion af­fairs un­der Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer and pres­i­dent of Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio, and head of the U.S. Agency for In­ter­na­tional Development, ac­cord­ing to Wes­leyan Pres­i­dent Michael Roth’s blog “Roth on Wes­leyan.”

“He and his wife Midge, their commitment to Mid­dle­town was sec­ond to none. They re­ally un­der­stood the value of the con­nec­tion be­tween the uni­ver­sity and the city and they did ev­ery­thing to pro­mote that bond,” said Com­mon Coun­cil­man Se­bas­tian N. Gi­u­liano, mayor dur­ing the last two years of Ben­net’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, which ended in 2007.

Gi­u­liano said Ben­net’s size and car­riage made him al­most an in­tim­i­dat­ing fig­ure.

“If you didn’t know Doug, you might have thought he was a lit­tle bit aloof, but that im­pres­sion was not the re­al­ity. He was a very, very tall, im­pos­ing guy.

“He had this deep bari­tone voice and he never raised it. He just spoke. He al­ways kind of looked se­ri­ous, but once you got past that, he had a very dry sense of hu­mor, and he was a very kind man,” Gi­u­liano said.

“From the mo­ment I was in­ter­viewed on cam­pus for the pres­i­dency, Doug was warm and wel­com­ing, wise, and full of love for the many facets of alma mater,” Roth wrote. “He be­lieved that Wes­leyan gave him so much, and he gave back un­stint­ingly with deep af­fec­tion.”

“He was very con­scious of the im­por­tance of the city and the uni­ver­sity be­ing united — that their des­tinies were very closely aligned to­gether,” said Domenique N. Thorn­ton, the city’s mayor from 2000 to 2005, who called him “a won­der­ful friend.”

When he came aboard, “there was re­ally no town­gown re­la­tions to speak of — there was no in­ter­ac­tion— but I think Doug, be­ing a com­mu­nity-minded in­di­vid­ual, re­al­ized in order for the uni­ver­sity to pros­per, the town needed to pros­per as well,” Thorn­ton said.

He was in­stru­men­tal in the launch and suc­cess of the Inn at Mid­dle­town in the old Ar­mory on Main Street, the Green Street Teach­ing and Learn­ing Cen­ter, free Wi-Fi down­town, and var­i­ous cul­tural projects, in­clud­ing most no­tably a play about im­mi­grants from Melilli, Si­cily, to Mid­dle­town, Thorn­ton said.

Ben­net and his wife were very hos­pitable, ac­cord­ing to many, open­ing the uni­ver­sity and their home to the com­mu­nity for count­less events.

“At ev­ery op­por­tu­nity, we would join to­gether to cre­ate im­prove­ments and projects ben­e­fit­ing the city,” Thorn­ton said. “If the city’s do­ing well, par­ents come to the city and our pros­per­ous down­town and see a very re­newed Main Street. It was dur­ing those years that Main Street did flour­ish, im­prove­ments that were later called by many The Re­nais­sance of Main Street,” she added.

While attending high school in the 1960s, and grow­ing up as child in Mid­dle­town, Gi­u­liano re­called very good re­la­tions be­tween Wes­leyan and city cit­i­zens.

“In the ’60s, a lot of crazy things hap­pened. It com­pletely soured in ’60s, and for many years af­ter that, it was an an­tag­o­nis­tic re­la­tion­ship. It was re­ally Doug Ben­net who re­ha­bil­i­tated that. For Doug to turn that around, that was a mon­u­men­tal ef­fort and he tack­led it,” he said.

When Thorn­ton as­sumed lead­er­ship of the city in 1997, the oc­cu­pancy rate down­town was about 60 per­cent va­cant, she re­called. “By 2005, it was com­pletely full,” she said.

Pe­ter Pat­ton, emer­i­tus fac­ulty mem­ber who worked closely with Ben­net, last saw him in Oc­to­ber. The pro­fes­sor of earth and en­vi­ron­men­tal science re­tired in 2017 af­ter 41 years at the uni­ver­sity — 12 as vice pres­i­dent and sec­re­tary un­der Ben­net.

Ben­net grew up on Ham­burg Cove in Lyme, he said.

“He was trans­for­ma­tive for the in­sti­tu­tion,” Pat­ton said. Looking out at cam­pus, he said the vista en­tirely changed un­der Ben­net’s lead­er­ship, dur­ing which the uni­ver­sity pro­vided fi­nan­cial sup­port for the Main Street USA pro­gram, which led to the re­ju­ve­na­tion of down­town, en­cour­ag­ing new re­tail busi­nesses and restau­rants.

He was also an early in­vestor in the Inn at Mid­dle­town, Pat­ton said.

“It was a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship. We wanted a vi­brant down­town, we wanted a place for Wes­leyan peo­ple to stay when they vis­ited cam­pus, but it was also won­der­ful for Mid­dle­town, too,” he said.

“His le­gacy re­ally tran­scends the cam­pus up on the hill. It was deeply en­gaged. He very much be­lieved ac­tive cit­i­zen­ship and lib­eral learn­ing went hand in hand. He wanted our stu­dents to be en­gaged as cit­i­zens,” Pat­ton said, adding Ben­net was an un­usual choice for pres­i­dent, with a doctorate in Rus­sian his­tory from Har­vard.

“He was not hand­cuffed or straight-jack­eted by past ex­pe­ri­ences in academic in­sti­tu­tions. He had a very fresh set of eyes when he came to Wes­leyan,” he said.

Thorn­ton re­called the time in 2001 when a group of 26 stu­dents staged a sit-in while Ben­net was out of town. They wanted to help save the job of a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor whose contract ran out.

“He had a great sense of hu­mor ex­cept when they took over his of­fice,” Thorn­ton said with a hearty laugh. “The stu­dents were very fond of this pro­fes­sor. I was called upon as the mayor to go up to Wes­leyan and send the po­lice to ar­rest the stu­dents, which I was reluctant to do.”

She sent the former deputy chief of po­lice, now Com­mon Coun­cil­man Phil Pessina. “He talked the kids and en­ticed them to come out of the of­fice with piz­zas. There were no ar­rests and ev­ery­thing ended very well,” Thorn­ton said.

“I thought the bet­ter part of dis­cre­tion would be to try to get them to leave vol­un­tar­ily. We sent our emis­sary to coax them out and it worked,” she added.

“I had tremen­dous time work­ing for him,” Pat­ton said. “I felt I was part of a team that was mak­ing trans­for­ma­tion pos­si­ble. Some peo­ple think things were not so great, some peo­ple think things were re­ally good, but in to­tal­ity, it was an amaz­ing 12 years.”

Hearst Con­necti­cut Media file pho­tos

Wes­leyan Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Douglas Ben­net, right, looks on as Doreen Free­man re­ceives her honorary doc­tor of hu­mane let­ters de­gree dur­ing the school’s May 2003 com­mence­ment in Mid­dle­town.

Wes­leyan grad­u­ates made state­ments through­out the grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony in May 2003, ask­ing the uni­ver­sity to end a ban on a tra­di­tional prac­tice of chalk­ing on side­walks in Mid­dle­town.


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