Lee Benson, 90; helped lead Penn's community links

Lee Benson
Lee Benson
Posted: March 19, 2012

Lee Benson, 90, cofounder in 1983 of what is now the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania, died Feb. 10 at Springfield Hospital in Delaware County, of complications from a fall.

The Netter Center works with 50 Penn faculty members to teach 1,600 Penn students each year to help mostly West Philadelphia High School students get into and succeed in college.

"Our purpose is to improve learning in the schools and the quality of life in the community," said Ira Harkavy, the center director.

Harkavy, who with Dr. Benson in 1983 founded what was then Penn's Office of Community Oriented Policy Studies, defined the Benson outlook: "You work intelligently and systematically to change the world for the better and in so doing you understand the world better."

The Policy Studies Office's first project, in 1985, was the West Philadelphia Improvement Corps, a summer job-training program for neighbors of the Penn campus. In 1988, it became the Penn Program for Public Service, in 1992 the Center for Community Partnerships, and in 2007 the Netter Center.

Dr. Benson "played a leading role in the creation of every one," Harkavy said.

Now the year-round program not only focuses on seven schools in West Philadelphia with "college access career readiness programs," it also offers nutrition education to those and 13 others.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Dr. Benson studied for three years at Brooklyn College, was drafted in 1942, and was a leader of an Army platoon that helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp.

Dr. Benson earned a bachelor's at Brooklyn College in 1947, a master's at Columbia University in 1948, and a doctorate at Cornell University in 1952, all in history.

Returning to Columbia, he was until 1960 a research associate, instructor, and lecturer at its Bureau of Applied Social Research.

He taught history at Wayne State University until joining the University of Pennsylvania as a history professor in 1964.

In 1976, Dr. Benson became the first president of the Social Science History Association, Harkavy said.

After becoming professor emeritus in 1990, he was named distinguished senior fellow at the Netter Center in 1998 and continued teaching into this year.

Harkavy said that one of Dr. Benson's five books, The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case" introduced the application of social science theory and methodology to the discipline of history."

Since 1988, Dr. Benson had been co-executive editor, with Harkavy, of the Center's Universities and Community Schools journal. Joann Weeks joined them in 2010. He also cowrote, with Harkavy and John Puckett, Dewey's Dream: Universities and Democracies in an Age of Education Reform, published by Temple University Press in 2007.

Dr. Benson is survived by a daughter, Sally. His wife, Eugenia, died in 1987.

A memorial service is set for 3 p.m., May 1, in the Hall of Flags at Houston Hall on the Penn campus.

Contact Walter F. Naedele

at 215-854-5607 or at wnaedele@phillynews.com.

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