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Obituary: Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson / Author of first 23 Nancy Drew mysteries

Wednesday, May 29, 2002

By Mark Zaborney and George J. Tanber, Block News Alliance

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson, a reporter for 58 years at The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, and the former Toledo Times and author of the first 23 Nancy Drew mysteries, whose work inspired generations of readers and colleagues, died last night in Toledo Hospital. She was 96.

Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson in a 1995 photo. (The Blade/Diane Hires)

Mrs. Benson became ill at work yesterday afternoon while working on her column and was later taken from her home by rescue squad to the hospital's emergency room where she died about 8 p.m., said her daughter, Peggy Wirt.

Mrs. Benson -- Millie to her friends and fans -- was widely acclaimed and internationally known for her work on the Nancy Drew series, which began in 1930. She wrote the initial books in the series under the pen name Carolyn Keene but was sworn to secrecy by a contract she signed with her publisher. Mrs. Benson did not reveal her true identity until a 1980 court case allowed her to do so. The revelation made her an instant celebrity.

Her books, Nancy Drew buffs have said, allowed teen-age girls and young women to imagine that all things might be possible at a time when females struggled mightily for any sense of equality.

"Millie's innovation was to write a teen-age character who insisted upon being taken seriously and who by asserting her dignity and autonomy made her the equal of any adult. That allowed little girls to dream what they could be like if they had that much power," said Ilana Nash, a Nancy Drew authority and doctoral student at Bowling Green State University.

The longevity and commercial success of the Nancy Drew books have become as good a story as Mrs. Benson's tales.

"In the past 70 years, she's become a publishing phenomenon, selling more than 100 million volumes, inspiring translations into 17 languages, and spinning off four movies, a television series ... and a bevy of Nancy Drew products, " wrote University of Northern Iowa English professor Barbara Lounsberry upon Mrs. Benson's 95th birthday.

The pluck of Mrs. Benson's fictional teen-age sleuth attracted readers then and now. Her own feistiness, work ethic, and fierce independence brought her many admirers.

She was a pilot and an adventurer who made numerous trips to Mexico and remote Central American jungles to study archaeology. She golfed well into her 90s, reported to work every day, and retained a zest for life and her profession long after most of her contemporaries had passed on.

"Millie Benson was one of the greatest women writers and journalists of the 20th century," said John Robinson Block, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade of Toledo and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "She was gutsy and daring, a living embodiment of her Nancy Drew heroine. She influenced generations of Blade reporters. I will never forget her."

In January, Mrs. Benson reluctantly retired as one of the country's oldest newspaper reporters. Despite failing eyesight and diminished hearing, she continued authoring a monthly column, "Millie Benson's Notebook." She remained fastidious in her reporting and passionate about her writing.

"Going to work was a way of life for me and I had no other," she wrote in a December column upon her pending retirement.

In the column, she explained that her legendary work ethic related to being hired by the Toledo Times in her third try during World War II.

"I was told after [the war] ended there would be layoffs and I would be the first one to go. I took the warning seriously and for years I worked with a shadow over my head, never knowing when the last week would come," she wrote.

In addition to novels, she wrote Cub, Brownie, Girl and Explorer Scout books, and many stories and articles for children's magazines.

Indeed, she favored Penny Parker, hero of a series written under her own name.

"I always thought Penny Parker was a better Nancy Drew than Nancy is," Mrs. Benson said in 1993.

Mark Zaborney and George J. Tanber are reporters for The Blade of Toledo, Ohio, and the Block News Alliance.

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