Dwight Bentel, who helped students start the Spartan Daily in 1934 and two years later established the journalism program at San Jose State University, died today. He was 103.
His death at a Saratoga skilled-nursing facility resulted from complications related to a stroke, according to Amelia Vences, his caregiver for eight years.
During his 40 years at SJSU, nearly 30 of which he directed what is now the school of journalism and mass communications, he backed up two university presidents as an administrative aide, led a new police school, chaired a committee that got the Student Union built and fiercely demanded in his signature class that his students understand and defend the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Among Bentel’s several “distinguished” teaching awards was recognition by the university, California State College system and national journalism associations. Alumni of the journalism program have their names on three individual Pulitzer Prizes, and at least two graduates directed work that received four other Pulitzers for newspaper staffs.
Bentel’s first brush with work-a-day journalism came as a copy boy for the San Jose Mercury Herald in 1928, when his duties included guarding Managing Editor Merle Gray, who was campaigning against San Jose speakeasies during Prohibition. He often told of getting his first byline on one of the raids, and that it was misspelled, Dwight Bentell.
He went to San Jose State for a time before transferring to Stanford, where he was a news stringer who carried a camera. On an assignment he viewed as an early example of photojournalism at the U.S. Olympic trials in 1932, he photographed the finish of a 200-yard dash and wrote the story, both of which led the Mercury Herald’s sports page.
Bentel earned his bachelor’s degree in 1932 and his master’s in 1934, both from Stanford. That summer he had a meeting that would launch his career.
Passion for the Daily
The story told many times painted a bright-eyed 25-year-old Bentel being summoned by President T. W. MacQuarrie of what was then San Jose State College.
“Yes, I can pinpoint it right now,” he remembered in a Jan. 5 interview. “I went in to see him. And after a rather short discussion of what I could offer and so on, 'Now,' he said, ‘Dwight, I would like you to possibly do a little publicity with the college, to teach some basic course or two in journalism and … Dwight, I don’t really know what your job is.’”
MacQuarrie gave the young reporter and former San Jose State student one year to establish an occupationally oriented program, according to “The first 50 years,” a book on the school’s history by Dolores Spurgeon, who was the Daily’s second editor and Bentel’s first hire in the department.
Bentel would become the driving force behind journalism at SJSU.
Although he would never say he founded the Spartan Daily, it was Bentel’s hand that shaped its emergence from the State College Times, which was being assembled by a dozen students out of Room 17 in Tower Hall.
At the beginning of the fall semester of 1934, Bentel, described as a dynamic character with red hair and freckles always moving, always bouncing, began the process of molding the Spartan Daily into a structured newsroom.
“All right, you guys, now look,” he recalled. “I came in today to watch you putting out the paper and right now, beginning immediately, you are now on a standard three-unit performance — three units of payment as a requirement — and you do not come wandering in when you are ready to work.
“You are to come in at 1 in the afternoon and work until 4. Whether you have a story due, you come in at 1. At that time we did a review of that day’s paper and saw what was good. But it was no longer a choice of you to say whether you would come in and work.”
Mindful that MacQuarrie had said Bentel was on his own, the students on staff were assured by their new mentor that they would get three units of credit.
“Who said we could give three units of credit?” he added, chuckling. “I did. Later I had a word with the administration.”
Bentel was adamant that the Daily should be a free-press publication with students making news and editorial decisions and faculty acting as advisers.
“He was such a huge figure in the history of the Spartan Daily,” said David Willman, Los Angeles Times reporter, Pulitzer Prize recipient and reporter-editor on the Spartan Daily in 1977. “I think that a lot of us worked harder to live up to the reputation that he had helped create for the Spartan Daily. I know without thinking about it, it was an incentive and inspiration.”
Gordon Greb, a retired radio professor, who was an adviser on the Daily, wrote in a note that nothing ever stopped Bentel.
“This man was such a bundle of energy that he never walked but he ran,” he stated. “He was an olympian racer of Spartan endurance and set such high standards in developing the working press it left you breathless just to see him in action.”
Strong passion for the First Amendment
Bentel’s specialty was media law and the First Amendment.
He published more than 100 scholarly works including “California Libel Law” in 1968, establishing himself as an authority on the subjects, according to Spurgeon.
Bentel acknowledged that Spurgeon, now an emeritus professor at age 96, never got enough credit for the success of the school’s programs. From 1942 to 1945, Bentel said she kept the Daily publishing — resorting to a mimeograph machine when the Daily’s printer couldn’t get newsprint — while Bentel worked on his doctorate in education at Columbia University in New York City.
Bentel's side jobs, he said, included one that required a four-hour subway-bus commute from upper Manhattan to Kearny, N.J., for a midnight-to-8 a.m. shift at a U.S. Steel plant. He also photographed exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History and covered the wire services — Associated Press, United Press and International News Service — for Editor & Publisher, a newspaper industry trade journal.
He often told of interviewing Ed Kennedy, the late AP correspondent recently “exonerated” for breaking the embargo on the German surrender ending the war in Europe and losing his job. Ernie Pyle gave Bentel one of his last interviews before the syndicated war correspondent went back to writing about G.I. Joe and losing his life in the Pacific Theater.
And Dwight Bentel relished recalling how his Ed.D. diploma was a surprise. Bentel was caught in an academic quagmire when Columbia University was between presidencies. Bentel had completed his course work and dissertation in 1945 and returned to San Jose without degree. He said he wondered whether he might ever get a diploma when it arrived in 1950 shortly after Dwight Eisenhower had taken over the Columbia reins before becoming the 34th president of the U.S.
Bentel was a member of a legislative advisory group whose work led to the Brown Act, legislation that prohibits closed meetings and secret records of public and governmental bodies in California.
Bentel’s nonstop storytelling included one about U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. In the 1960s Bentel chaired a committee charged with getting a Student Union built on campus and recalled approaching then-Sen. Thomas Kuchel about financing it. Panetta, then Kuchel’s aide, found an obscure fund set aside for the construction of state buildings, Bentel said.
Panetta’s wife, Sylvia, who directs the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, said in an email shortly after Bentel died that, although “vaguely familiar to Leon and me,” she couldn’t confirm the information.
More than 9,000 students voted, nearly 7,000 of them agreeing to assess themselves ongoing fees to build the union, which is undergoing major renovation today.
Up until his retirement from full-time teaching in 1974 he taught classes in nearly everything in the department, but students most vividly remember his media law class.
“Dr. Bentel taught us about libel in great detail and added the broader lesson in life that anyone can make a mistake; the test is what you do about it,” said Jim Adams who was the Spartan Daily’s editor in 1959 and went on to travel with then Vice President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State George Shultz and cover the first Gulf War in 1990-91. “Dr. Bentel’s libel course was my guide throughout my career as a Washington AP and Reuters reporter.”
“He always told the same stories in all of his classes … I enjoyed him very much,” said Betty Dickason, a 1948 Spartan Daily alumna whose daughter was editor of the Daily. “He was just so full of energy when we were there.”
Rick Carroll, who studied journalism at SJSU in the early 1960s and later worked as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and San Francisco Chronicle, said as an 18-year-old he chose to attend SJSU, “where I met Dwight Bentel the fall semester 1961 and felt the white hot heat of his passion for journalism. It was not a guild, a craft, or a profession to him; it was religion and maybe it was in his time, and maybe it was for a little longer for us, too.”
Mentor and leader
In her book, Spurgeon writes that Bentel had a strong vision for the budding journalism program at SJSU. The Spartan Daily would provide students with training and experience in operating a daily — the experience they needed to get a job.
He hired professionals from the industry and established three new sequences, advertising, public relations and photojournalism.
But also remembered is Bentel’s dedication to his students.
Jerry Nachman, author and former San Francisco Chronicle columnist, told of a session with Bentel.
"I was on my summer internship and I was at the Berkeley bureau of the Oakland Tribune in the summer of 1960,” he said. “I didn't do very well. I had a very tough boss and she didn't trust me to go out on stories. I put in my three months and I went back to school in September for my last semester. Dwight Bentel called me and he said, 'Well, you didn't get a very good support from the boss. She thinks you should find another career.' Then Dwight Bentel said to me, ‘I think she's wrong.' I had been writing for the Spartan Daily. He said, 'I believe in you and that you should keep on going.' He really backed me up and supported me. It was a huge thing for me at the time."
Marty Weybret, publisher of the Lodi News-Sentinel, recalls Bentel as an inspiring one-man show.
“He started the department and he added pieces to it like building block very deftly. He set very high standard for the teaching of journalism, mass media law, but also high standards for breadth,” he said. “He had a great balance with students, where you have to demand a lot and yet still be inspiration and still be a leader though compliments and encouragement. When he was at his best, the department was the best in the state and rivaled any in the nation in my understanding.”
J. Benton White, retired SJSU professor of religious studies and university ombudsman, said of Bentel, “He was extremely jealous of his student's role in reporting news during the tumultuous days of the late ’60s and early ’70s and became enraged when some of his reporters in his view were roughed up by the police on an occasion at McQuarrie Hall … I have never before or since seen him so enraged.”
Dwight Bentel Hall was named in his honor in 1982.
“He was highly respected over the years and the Spartan Daily was a highly respected student newspaper under his guidance,” White said. “It is fitting a building is named in his honor. He deserved that honor if anybody ever did.”
Dwight Essler Bentel
Born: April 15, 1909, Walla Walla, Wash.
Died: May 16, 2012, Saratoga, Calif.
Survived by: Son, David of Monterey; granddaughter, Christina Bentel-Martinic of Oakland; great-granddaughter, Carolina; and great-grandson, Thomas.
Services: Pending. Professor Bentel chose to be cremated.
Memorial: Donations may be made to the Dwight Bentel First Amendment Champions Fund, San Jose State University Tower Foundation, One Washington Square, San Jose, CA 95192-0257, or www.sjsu.edu.giving/ attention, L. Jimison.
Mack Lundstrom, Cynthia Ly, Julie Myhre, Rebecca Duran, Francisco Rendon, Ronald Gleeson and Leo Postovoit contributed to this story.