City mourns man who rebuilt town-gown bond
Doug Bennet’s commitment to Middletown ‘second to none’
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.”
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.