Raised in a small Connecticut river town, Douglas 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.
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 Sunday 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 Bennet, D-Colo.
Douglas Bennet had no broadcasting experience when he took over as president of NPR in 1983. 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.
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.
Bennet took over from Mankiewicz’s successor, Ronald 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 Bennet arrived. “He just sort of held it all together during what was a scary time for us.”
Bennet helped wean the media organization from federal funding, honing a business model in which private and corporate donations 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 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.”
Bennet left NPR in 1993. Two years later he became the 15th president of Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Conn., where he, his father and two of his children had graduated from college.
Bennet developed a comprehensive plan that resulted in an expansion of the school’s faculty, growth of financial aid programs and renovation of its central campus.
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 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, two stepchildren, one brother, three sisters and nine grandchildren.