Published: Monday, December 17, 2012 at 6:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 17, 2012 at 6:25 p.m.
Jim Benét, a former San Francisco Chronicle and KQED reporter who covered higher education in a tumultuous period in California and who earlier forged his own leftist politics as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, died Sunday in Santa Rosa.
He was 98. The cause was a blood infection, according to his son.
Benét, who retired in Sonoma County and was active in food, wine and gardening circles, came from a prominent East Coast literary and military family.
He forged his own path as a respected newspaper and TV reporter in the Bay Area, covering the Free Speech movement on the UC Berkeley campus in the early 1960s and two decades of upheaval that would follow in college and political worlds.
His stories were pressing but balanced “no matter how tense the situation was,” said Dick Hafner, the Healdsburg winemaker who for 25 years served as UC Berkeley's public affairs officer.
“He was the best personification of the objective news collector,” Hafner said.
Because of his early political involvement and wartime work as a reporter for TASS, the Soviet news agency, he was among those called by the House on Un-American Activities Committee when it visited San Francisco in 1960. His work for TASS and the Soviets — an ally in World War II — had been sanctioned by the U.S. but a decade later came under heavy suspicion.
“It was pretty traumatic times,” his son Peter Benét said. Benét refused to answer questions but was not jailed for his silence. His friend, writer Dashiell Hammett, was jailed in a separate court inquiry into communism.
Born in 1914 in New York, James Walker Benét combined both the military and literary threads of his family's history.
His father was the poet and editor William Rose Benét and his uncle was Stephen Vincent Benét, the poet, short story writer and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative poem “John Brown's Body,” about the Civil War. His grandfather and great-grandfather were both high ranking officers in the Army.
Benét's mother died in 1919 and he was raised in Marin County by his aunt, the novelist Kathleen Norris.
He was two years out of Stanford University in 1937 when he joined up with fellow Americans in the volunteer Abraham Lincoln Brigade, fighting with the Spanish Republican faction against the Nationalists, who would go on to rule the county for nearly four decades.
An ambulance driver and solider, he drank several times alongside writer Ernest Hemingway, according to Benét's son.
“He was a radical youth,” Peter Benét said.
He returned to the United States in the fall of 1938 and resumed his journalism career. He worked first for the New Republic then for TASS before moving in 1947 to San Francisco, where he joined the Chronicle and later KQED, the public TV and radio station. He was a regular contributor to “Newsroom,” KQED's hourlong local news show that ran prior to the national newscast.
“He saw his role as seeing through the rhetoric of politicians and trying to get the real story out,” Peter Benét said.
He taught part-time in the journalism programs at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. He also authored three books, including a guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area and two mystery novels.
He retired to Sonoma County in 1979, living first in Sebastopol and then in Forestville.
His first marriage, to actress Mary Liles, ended in divorce. His subsequent marriages were to Jane Gugel, a food editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, who died of breast cancer, and to her sister-in-law Ruth Gugel, who also died of breast cancer.
A cerebral personality, according to his son, Benét was a “devout Californian” who amassed a sizeable library that detailed the history of the state and the West.
A sign in his study read: “People say that life is the thing, but on the whole I prefer books.”
He was preceded in death by daughter Markie Hale. In addition to his son Peter Benét of West Hartford, Conn., he is survived by daughter Judith Richardson of Woods Hole, Mass., and by eight grandchildren and one great-grandson.
Burial will be by the Neptune Society.
— Brett Wilkison
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