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Allegra Bennett, former Sun reporter who became a self-help writer

Allegra B. Bennett, a former journalist who became a self-help writer and appeared on home improvement television spots as the "renovating woman," died of breast cancer Tuesday at Gilchrist Hospice Care.

The Mount Vernon resident was 68.

"Allegra was always the energy in the room," said former congressman and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, for whom she once worked. "She had a knack of creating an actionable thought, then dressing the thought with words. She was straightforward, approachable, pleasant and tough."

Born Allegra Brown in New York City and raised in Harlem, she was the daughter of Francis Brown, an electrician who was from Nevis in the British West Indies, and Dorothy Delcina Nora Williams.

Ms. Bennett earned a bachelor's degree at Bronx Community College.

Colleagues recalled that she initially worked as a secretary in New York. She had aspirations to become a journalist and saw an article in Jet magazine about a summer program for minority journalists being held at the University of California at Berkeley. She applied and was accepted.

At the end of the program, she moved to Baltimore and joined the staff of The Baltimore Sun in 1977. She went on to cover federal courts and was part of a team that covered the indictment and conviction of former City Council President Walter S. Orlinsky. She also flew to Florida for the release of former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel from a federal prison.

"Allegra was always curious about the city," said DeWayne Wickham, dean of Morgan State University's School of Global Communications and Journalism, who is also former Sun reporter.

"She learned that the judges and top lawyers had a monthly breakfast at Sess' restaurant on Wilson Street. She pushed her way into their table, and they allowed her to sit with them. She was that kind," Wickham said. "She would push as far as people would allow, and then she would push a little more. She was always searching to have her voice heard."

In 1984 she received a fellowship to study at the University of Michigan. She returned to The Sun in 1985, then became a press secretary to Mfume in 1987. She was later an editorial writer and columnist for The Washington Times.

"Allegra had strong opinions," said a friend, Lorraine Branham, dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University and a former Sun reporter. "We often talked that she wanted to be an editorial writer. She talked of being a columnist and having people recognize her."

In an autobiographical sketch, Ms. Bennett said that in a career switch, "I had the distinction of working as one of the writers on the Democratic National Committee speech writing teams for the John Kerry and Barack Obama conventions in 2004, 2008 and 2012. What an experience that was helping to turn talking points into memorable phrases and being in the thick of things while history was being made."

Ms. Bennett owned an aging Sequoia Avenue home in Northwest Baltimore. She took on home repair and improvements — and found she could write about her experience after a garbage disposal broke and she fixed it herself. She bought her own set of tools and went to work. She created a persona for herself: the "renovating woman."

"Fixing the garbage disposal was a turning point for Bennett," said a 2006 Baltimore Sun article. "The next day, she went on a shopping spree at Sears. She bought a hammer, a power drill, screwdrivers and a chain saw to cut down an irritating apple tree in the backyard."

She found she liked the experience.

"It liberated me," Ms. Bennett said. From 1991 to 1993, she was host of a radio show on WBAL about home improvement.

In 1997, she released her first book, "Renovating Woman: A Guide to Home Repair Maintenance and Real Men." In 2006 she launched Renovating Woman: The Do-It Herself Magazine.

"I simply show people how to plug the holes so they can keep their money from going out the window," she said in 2006.

The Sun's article described her on-camera persona: "Bennett is the woman with the bright smile and fluffy, salt-and-pepper curls that frame her face."

Since 1994, she had run her own business providing communications work, editing, ghostwriting and manuscript consultation to individuals and entities. An advertising agency engaged her for a series of BGE conservation and management ads to show consumers the best ways to save energy.

"Her friendly tone and professional expertise lent credibility and consumer appeal to our campaign, " said Chuck Fitzgibbon, executive vice president with Weber Shandwick, the agency that engaged her for the BGE campaign.

At the time of her death she was writing a biography of attorney William H. "Billy" Murphy.

"Allegra was a great human being and a fabulous writer," said Mr. Murphy. "I chose her for her humanity, writing skills and her love of the city."

Services are private. A gathering will be held from 4 to 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21 at the Forest Park Golf Course Club House, West Forest Park Avenue.

Survivors include a son, Jamal Bennett; a daughter, Alycia Bennett, both of Brooklyn, N.Y.; a brother, Melvin Brown of New York; and a sister, Grace Brown, also of New York; and four grandchildren. A marriage ended in divorce.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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