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Jim Ben?

Jim Ben?, 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.

Ben?, 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 Ben? said. Ben? 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 Ben? combined both the military and literary threads of his family's history.

His father was the poet and editor William Rose Ben? and his uncle was Stephen Vincent Ben?, 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.


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