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    Phyllis Wheeler Bennett, 74; launched weekly N.H. newspaper

    Ms. Bennett’s paper helped to defeat a proposal for an oil refinery in Durham.
    Ms. Bennett’s paper helped to defeat a proposal for an oil refinery in Durham.

    In fall 1973, a weekly newspaper in southern New Hampshire that Phyllis Wheeler Bennett and her then-husband had just launched broke the story that a real estate broker was buying property on scenic Durham Point. According to rumors, the paper said, the land grab was for an oil refinery.

    In an April 2014 speech to a historical association, Ms. Bennett recalled that “late one night, we received a call from a local attorney reporting that someone was repeatedly trying to option land from a number of his clients and the daily papers he contacted expressed no interest, so he called us.”

    Initially, she said in the speech, “there were still more questions than answers.” But the couple’s newspaper, Publick Occurrences, would eventually report that the land was for a 400,000-barrel-a-day oil refinery that a company controlled by Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis would operate. A few months later, in March 1974, Durham residents voted 1,254 to 144 against the refinery, which would have been the largest in the world.


    “It made all the difference,” Dudley Dudley, a former New Hampshire lawmaker who was a leading opponent of the proposal, said of the in-depth coverage the couple’s newspaper published. “We couldn’t have possibly organized people in the way we did without the information that Publick Occurrences provided to them.”

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    Ms. Bennett, who went on to become chief of communications for the University of New Hampshire for 23 years, died July 21, apparently of a heart attack, after pulling to the side of a road while driving home from Manchester, N.H., her family said. She was 74 and lived in Durham.

    Her husband, Ray Belles, said he and Ms. Bennett had spent the previous day “swimming and sailing and entertaining” a grandchild at their home. “It was the perfect summer’s day.”

    Word of her death spread quickly through Durham, said Dudley, who became close friends with Ms. Bennett after they helped defeat the oil refinery proposal.

    “It was as though the whole town just gasped,” Dudley said. “She was so young and just so vital in every way. She had so much left to do.”


    Ms. Bennett was a young mother with twin 6-year-olds when she and her first husband, Stephen Alden Bennett, moved from Baltimore to Durham with dreams of running a newspaper. They used their savings to start Publick Occurrences, named after the first multi-page newspaper in the American colonies.

    Six weeks after the Bennetts published their first issue, the paper broke the story about the oil refinery. Publick Occurrences folded because of a lack of funds about two years later, despite efforts by Ms. Bennett and many of the newspaper’s supporters. By that time, the Bennetts had divorced.

    “The loss of the paper wasn’t easy on her,” said Dudley, who worked with her friend to try to save the paper by seeking new subscribers and advertisers. “There was nothing she ever gave up on.”

    Ms. Bennett then turned to the University of New Hampshire and was directed to Belles, who at the time was the executive in residence at the UNH business school. “She liked to say that she lost the newspaper, but she got me,” Belles said. They were together for 40 years and married on the lawn of their home on Oyster River in 2000.

    Ms. Bennett helped form what became the New Hampshire Humanities Council and joined the university relations department at UNH, where she worked for 23 years, during the tenures of eight presidents.


    Joan Leitzel, UNH president from 1996 to 2002, said Ms. Bennett was “a journalist by training and temperament, and that was one of her strengths.” Leitzel described her as “very, creative, an excellent listener, and very engaged in the community at both the state and local levels.”

    “She knew all the decision makers in New Hampshire and that helped her lead us to connect the university with the public,” Leitzel said. “Whenever the university was working beyond its own community, she would be a partner in planning and understanding.”

    After retiring from UNH, Ms. Bennett served on the boards of New Hampshire Audubon, the Canterbury Shaker Village, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

    Phyllis Wheeler was born in New York City, the daughter of Bertram Wheeler and the former Kathryn Brennan. She grew up in Woodbridge, N.J., where as a girl she hand-wrote and delivered newspapers to neighbors, according to her family.

    She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history from Douglass College, which is now part of Rutgers University, and during college interned at the United Nations. She also was an intern at Voice of America, where she delivered radio broadcasts, sometimes in Spanish.

    After graduating from college, she moved to Washington, D.C., and began working for US Representative Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat. During the Civil Rights movement she participated in the March on Washington with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and she traveled to Alabama for the marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

    Before moving to Durham in 1973, Ms. Bennett was a social worker and worked for news- papers in Baltimore while raising her two children.

    Her daughter, Meredith of Ridgewood, N.J., recalled hours spent at the offices of Publick Occurrences, where her mother “did a little bit of everything.”

    “She believed very strongly in the power of newspapers, and also in the power of higher education,” said Meredith, who added that despite a hectic schedule, Ms. Bennett read to her children every night and drove them to sports practices daily.

    Ms. Bennett encouraged her daughter, an Emmy Award-winning co-executive producer of the Comedy Central show “The Colbert Report,” to take an internship at a Manchester television station. More recently Ms. Bennett formed a family book group to encourage her four grandsons to read “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

    “She was a wonderful grandmother who took every opportunity to spend time with them and teach them about everything she loved in life,” Meredith said.

    In addition to her husband, daughter, and grandchildren, Ms. Bennett leaves a son, Patrick of Charlotte, N.C., and a brother, Richard Wheeler of Ketchum, Idaho.

    Belles said a service will be held at their home in the fall.

    Patrick said his mother’s mantra was “be a doer, not a watcher,” and recalled that a desire to see a camel once led her to travel to Egypt.

    “She was always curious about everything and everybody,” he said.

    Kathleen McKenna can be reached at