Raised in a small Connecticut river town, Douglas J. Bennet developed a love of sailing and repairing boats, a fondness for tinkering that eventually extended from watercraft to washing machines and from tractors to toys. As an adult, he devoted himself to mending institutions he believed were vital to civic life.
Serving as president of NPR and then Wesleyan University, he brought stability to entities beset by financial turmoil and flagging morale, engineering turnarounds in which the news organization’s audience tripled and the university’s endowment nearly doubled.
Mr. Bennet, a onetime scholar of Russian history who also served as an assistant secretary of state for two presidents and as director of the United States Agency for International Development, died June 10 at his home in Essex, Conn. He was 79.
The cause was complications from a fall suffered five years ago, said his son James Bennet, the editorial page editor of the New York Times. His other children include Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.).
Mr. Bennet had no broadcasting experience when he took over as president of NPR in 1984. Instead, he had developed a reputation for strong leadership and deft political maneuvering in Washington, where he served in the Carter administration as assistant secretary of state for congressional relations and administrator of USAID.
“If you think this has a limited constituency, you should see AID’s constituency,” Mr. Bennet joked at an introductory NPR news conference, when asked how his government work might compare to his new position. “There are some parallels in management terms, the organizations are highly complex, the missions are sensitive. The automatic political support for manufacturing tanks or something is not there.”
Under President Frank Mankiewicz, NPR had dramatically expanded its news department and audience but struggled with a deficit that ballooned to more than $9 million. The shortfall, coupled with diminished federal support during the Reagan administration, nearly forced the public radio network into bankruptcy and off the air.
Mr. Bennet took over from Mankiewicz’s successor, Ronald C. Bornstein, who in six months as interim president steadied NPR’s finances by securing a loan from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and cutting about 140 employees.
“We were what you might call ‘on the floor,’ ” NPR correspondent Linda Wertheimer told the Hartford Courant in 1995, recalling the state of the news organization when Mr. Bennet arrived. “He just sort of held it all together during what was a scary time for us.”
Mr. Bennet helped wean the media organization from federal funding, honing a business model in which private and corporate donations — solicited through fundraising efforts that included an NPR-sponsored “Celebrity Croquet Tournament” — were buttressed by fees from member stations.
To that end, he expanded the number of NPR-affiliated stations to 460 from 283, according to Michael P. McCauley’s book “NPR: The Trials and Triumphs of National Public Radio.”
“In his 10 years as president,” McCauley wrote, “Doug Bennet guided NPR from the brink of insolvency to a position of undisputed leadership in American radio news,” launching programs that included a nationally distributed version of the Terry Gross interview show “Fresh Air.”
Mr. Bennet left NPR in 1993, when he applied his organizational expertise to the United Nations as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs. Two years later he became the 15th president of Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Conn., where he and his father and two of his children had graduated from college.
Mr. Bennet developed a comprehensive strategic plan that resulted in an expansion of the school’s faculty, growth of financial aid programs and renovation of its central campus. As at NPR, he presided over a rebuilding of the institution’s finances, leading a $281 million fundraising campaign and growing the endowment to $631 million amid a 25 percent growth in admission applications.
His 12 years as president, until retiring in 2007, “were years of remarkable progress for Wesleyan,” current President Michael S. Roth wrote in a blog post.
Douglas Joseph Bennet Jr. was born in Orange, N.J., on June 23, 1938, and grew up in Lyme, Conn., near the mouth of the Connecticut River. His father was a salesman who became executive secretary to Chester Bowles, then the state’s governor; his mother was a homemaker who served on school boards and lobbied for increased state support for the mentally disabled.
Mr. Bennet graduated from Wesleyan in 1959 and received a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley in 1960. His career in public service was launched three years later, when Bowles — by then the U.S. ambassador to India — invited him to work as a speechwriter and assistant in New Delhi.
He soon found that he preferred foreign affairs and the workings of public policy to the study of 17th-century Russia. After receiving his doctorate in history from Harvard University in 1967, he worked as an aide to Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Sens. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) and Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.), and in the mid-1970s served as the first staff director of the newly created Senate Budget Committee.
Mr. Bennet ran for a House seat in Connecticut in 1974 but lost to Christopher Dodd, who later served as a U.S. senator; Mr. Bennet’s father had unsuccessfully sought the same seat two decades earlier. He also briefly served as president of the Roosevelt Center for American Policy Studies, a Washington think tank.
His marriage to Susanne Klejman ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 21 years, Midge Bowen Bennet of Essex; three children from his first marriage, Michael F. Bennet of Denver, James Bennet of Manhattan, and Holly Bennet of Laguna Beach, Calif.; two stepchildren, Richard Ramsey of Laguna Beach and Elizabeth Ho Chee of Maple Valley, Wash.; one brother; three sisters; and nine grandchildren.
Mr. Bennet was roundly praised by faculty, trustees and alumni during his tenure at Wesleyan, but his administration sometimes engendered protests from a student body that Mother Jones once described as having the most activists in the country.
Among his most contentious decisions was a 2002 moratorium on “chalking,” followed one year later by a permanent ban on the practice, in which messages are scrawled in chalk across campus sidewalks. The messages, Mr. Bennet told the Times, “were increasingly aggressive and violent sexually” and sometimes featured “racial references.”
In 2004, a group of about 250 students gathered outside his office and blocked the building’s stairwells, to protest issues that included the chalking ban, as well as a debate over student housing.
Mr. Bennet said he was rarely bothered by criticism or personal attacks, including those that were etched in chalk. “Even when it was reported that various parts of my anatomy were displayed around campus,” he told the Times, “I never took it personally.”