Hennessy’s Tale

     The concept that history doesn’t repeat, but often rhymes has always rung true to me. Looking back through my half century, I’m struck by recurring themes from youth to (choose your own euphemism) seniority (certainly not maturity). I’ll cite a few below.

      Considering the sweep of time, I can’t be the only one in our famed class of ‘60 who recalls a comment often attributed to Mickey Mantle, “If I’d  known I’d live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

      Despite that, I’m grateful for having lived a full, varied, and interesting life on both coasts and overseas, for having a loving and adventurous family, good health, friends of many stripes, and for the beginnings of that in East Williston and at Wheatley.

                                                 Early Eye-Openers

     My earliest memories involve having my eyes opened wide when I arrived on Northside’s 7th grade scene and found some different types of classmates from those in previous schools (Garden City and Forest Hills). I was most intrigued by a new (to me) breed of tough guys ( aka “hoods” ) who wore skin-tight Levis and sported much more advanced vices than any I’d seen.

     I was particularly intrigued by Denny Hunt and Johnny Votano and my reaction, as a wiseguy newcomer, was to risk life and limb by tweaking them, sometimes with song lyrics I composed. They responded with more good humor than I deserved, but it was the beginning of a path I followed throughout life-- challenging those more powerful than myself.

     Moving to Willets Rd. in 8th grade revealed a whole new and exotic world with Roslyn Heights classmates who were another breed of cat, seemingly more sophisticated than Northsiders. It was a heady atmosphere, coinciding with emerging puberty, and I was definitely caught in the dance, flaunting authority by racking up a record number of  “U’s”, (unsatisfactory conduct ratings.)

     It was probably the origin of the quote under my name in Wheatley’s 1960 Aurora yearbook, “To his teachers, he is a strife; to his classmates, the spice of life.”

                                                Man-Child in the New School

     Such conduct didn’t escape notice.  A math teacher named John Devlin, who took a special interest in me since my family now lived in his in-laws’ East Williston home , stopped me in the hallway on one of the first days of 9th grade in the new WHS and asked loudly, “Well, young man,  are you ready for the big leagues?”

     The question was overheard by several classmates who took great glee in repeating it to me often throughout all my remaining high school years.  

      Whether I was ready or not, Wheatley was an exciting place, made more so by the awesome class of ’58, trained in Mineola High’s boot camp of hard knocks, star athletes in several sports,  images worthy of Brando (Steve Perlin), James Dean (Eddie Kritzler), John Wayne (Mike Stapleton), or Audie Murphy (Doug Kull).  Not to mention, DeNiro (J. Votano) and Pacino (Matt Sanzone) in the class of ’59.

     And that was just the guys. The girls in the class (some I recall are Barbara Becker, Judy Berman,  Bonnie Blackburn, etc) were  knock-outs--smart, talented and sure of themselves.

     What a standard our predecessors set! (undefeated football team in Wheatley’s first year, outstanding basketball squad led by Larry Nagler and Al Deutscher that came close to knocking off powerful Hempstead High in the Nassau Country playoffs -- a virtual David succeeding against many goliaths)

     They were such iconic characters that a million stories surrounded them. I recall watching wide-eyed in the locker room as Stapleton and Perlin traded punches to each other’s chests that would have croaked an average oxen.

     As a soph, I remember the joyous bus ride home after a win over Seaford sealed the undefeated football season when the wild and crazy among them proclaimed all manner of celebrative debauchery, and straight-arrow Doug Kull--rugged fullback and Student Council president who later became a Jesuit priest in the rural Philippines after graduating from Holy Cross--said innocently and happily that he was going to buy himself a case of Pepsi! The rowdies laughed, but they respected Doug too much on and off the field to mock his purity.

      I could go on with those tales of our elders, whose later lives were also stuff of legends (e.g., 5’9” Nagler won the NCAA tennis singles championship and played basketball at UCLA, daredevil Perlin became a Marine pilot who died in a training flight crash, Kritzler lived the reggae life in Jamaica and  wrote a book about Jewish pirates, etc.)  Those of us fortunate to read the amazingly candid, funny and informative blogs created by the class of ‘58 were once again blessed by their talents.

       But there was more than enough fascination for me in our own class, certainly one of the most spirited ever and fun-loving ever.  Bob Holley, an architect of the ’58 blog and football manager, analyzed our contribution to the undefeated team by noting--of 30 players-- nine were seniors, four juniors, and 17 sophomores. “No wonder I had so many sophomore friends!” he wrote on his class blog, “They were pretty darn ubiquitous and indispensable.”


     For myself, many of my fondest high school memories relate to being on the football and wrestling teams. Injured freshman year, I played on the tennis team rather than football and--at 135 pounds soaking wet-- could probably have contributed more with a racket than shoulder pads. (I later coached tennis and now play it actively in Boston.)

      My reasons for being on the football team the next three years were mainly the camaraderie and closeness among players and very special coaches, especially head coach Jack Davis.  We all knew “the Cat,” was a unique individual who had an unusually strong influence on his players and students.  

     To this day, many who played for him can quote  life lessons taped to the windows of his office. (“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog,” was my personal fav.)

     We met up with him again at Wheatley’s 50th reunion in 2006, handsome, dapper and full of life as ever at nearly 80, looking more than a decade younger. I didn’t know until I read his obit when he died in 2008 that Smiling Jack had six children, four of whom followed in his footsteps to become teachers. He coached and taught at Wheatley for 30 years, and was proud to be inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

     What I remember about him was a spooky ability to read minds and see into souls. An example that still lingers was his question to me at the Wheatley 50th. “Are you still running?”  he asked.

     I’d never been a serious runner and, thinking he might have mixed me up with someone else from the many students he’d known, quipped ,“Yeah, from the law.”

     Later, it occurred that he might have been asking about “running” in a different sense (possibly in circles?)  and I regretfully realized he deserved a better answer than my wisecrack.

     Another memorable football coach was former marine Bill Lawson, about whom I wrote what became a notorious essay for Miss Bodnar’s English class titled “Tales of the black-hearted line coach.” It  reported how a mythical , but not dissimilar, gridiron mentor allegedly spread glass on the field to toughen up his players. (an inside joke among the “Chinese bandits,” as the JV players were known.)

     Unfortunately for me, word of the essay, which I read aloud in class, leaked to Coach Lawson, who shouted to me at every practice from then on, “Hennessy, get over here and pick up this glass!”  Another example of tweaking the powerful I probably should have skipped.

     It wasn’t only tweaking that made me a challenge. Sometimes I resisted changing entrenched habits, even in areas where I had some aptitude and could have improved. An example was my unique wrestling style -- tenaciously latching onto an opponent with what Coach Bill Stevenson dubbed “the strongest thumbs on Long Island” until my hands--or some part of my victim’s anatomy-- turned white. (The label has followed me ever since as my wife and kids still request L.I.’s strongest thumbs to open stubborn cans and jars.)

     Although I figured ways to win more often than not, my stubbornness probably drove Coach Stevenson crazy; but he was a patient guy who seemed to find humor in the situation. Meeting him at the 50th celebration, also looking strong and youthful for his years, he shook hands with me and, with a quick laugh, shifted immediately to thumb-wrestling, as though no time had passed between us.

     And finally, on the subject of mentors and influences, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite history teacher, the red-headed Bostonian, Fred Mullen. His wry humor and understanding of students made him extremely popular among the guys and, I learned later, a heart-throb to the girls.

     He was an unforgettable teacher, but his interest in students was most remarkable. On his own, he took  the time to probe my college choices, suggesting I’d thrive in a spirited place, and making a recommendation to Rutgers, where I enrolled, that was probably instrumental in my acceptance.

     I say that with some certainty because an admissions dean I met soon after arriving on campus said he remembered me as “a wrestler from a private school on Long Island” recommended by his friend Fred Mullen. (I didn’t contradict him about The Wheatley School, but found --despite underwhelming  high school scholarship--I was as well prepared for college as most of the preppies I met there.)

      Sadly, Mr. Mullen, who was always so full of life, died of cancer at a young age, but he still personifies to me the kind of smart, cool, caring high school teacher I feel very fortunate to have known.

      In general, Wheatley’s students were blessed to have uncommonly dedicated teachers, coaches, and administrators who valued us, supported our efforts, were proud of our accomplishments, and empathetic for our struggles.

     I think some visionary planning created the unusual mix of towns that made up The Wheatley School. It wasn’t racially diverse, but there was a very interesting demographic, ethnic, religious, and socio-economic stew that seemed to encourage creativity, achievement, and, as I recall, few dull moments.


     The dominant sense from my high school years was what fun I had with close friends, male and female. That many of those friendships have continued all these years is proof of the pudding.

    This blog focuses on our class, but the friendships certainly included older and younger groups with whom we played sports, hung out and, of course, drank copious quantities of discount Old Milwaukee brew. The names Chuck Shaffer, Walter Brunner, Tom Kull and “Bulldog” Drummond spring to mind (the last two sadly passed away far before their time.)

     A few vivid recollections in this already embarrassingly lengthy tome:

       The Northside Vs. Willets Road football game in 8th grade-- Symbolic of the merger  of two competitive schools, Northside won the day’s bragging rights, but our opponents became our friends and teammates for the next four years.

       The Spartan Club--In Paul Keister’s marvelous red barn, our young tribe hatched ideas for all manner of fun events and schemes. The most ill-conceived -- “borrowing” Wheatley hall passes to decorate club walls along with a school fire extinguisher--was a caper quickly exposed, resulting in the first and only command appearance of all our parents with the principal, Norman Boyan. Embarrassing, to say the least, for would-be Spartans!

       Student Politics -- My attraction to working on political campaigns (e.g. Robert Kennedy for President in 1968) began at Wheatley in student council races. It was a kick to work with a team of enthusiastic supporters--including natural-born impresario “Baby Huey” Walt Brunner-- to support deserving candidates like John Moncure for Student Council President.

      Friendship--I’ll always recall Wheatley as a highly charged atmosphere where we laughed a lot, probably had too much fun, made close friends, and had many opportunities to pursue romantic interests. It wasn’t all sweetness and light as there were rival factions, often intense competition, lots of “ranking out,” and some clashing values with “city kids,” from Brooklyn, in particular. But I remember that all factions often gathered in the basement of my house at 11 Post Avenue, playing testosterone-fueled ping-pong on a table that acquired battle-scar memorials to the duels.

       Relationships--On the co-ed front, my odd-couple affair with L. M., cheerleader captain and avowed socialist, was another widening of my horizons. Coming from a family that could be labeled “Kennedy Democrats,” I was considerably more conservative than anyone in her family and had many spirited conversations with L. M. and her delightfully opinionated parents. One of my defenses was persistent ribbing that she tolerated surprisingly well, even chuckling when I called her “Captain Hook” and  being enough of a sport to sign my yearbook with the nickname.  I don’t think we could have predicted our connection would endure for 50 years, as we remain friends who can still agree to disagree with the same intensity and affection we always had.

     I could go on as I find when I delve into my recollections of this period, I suffer from information overload--too many memories, not enough time or space to record them--so I’ll flash ahead to my life post-1960.

                                               The Rest of the Story

As I noted about history rhyming in the intro, I’ll cite the following parallels between past and present:

       Hometown--I now live six miles from Boston (my dad’s hometown)  in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, a town I often think of as  a New England version of a combined East Williston/Roslyn Heights/Mineola, with many transplanted  New Yorkers and even some of the same street names as in our old neighborhood. A major difference is the size of the high school my kids attended with 600 students in a class. They roll their eyes when I argue that smaller schools allow more opportunities to get involved, but I strongly believe it’s true based on our Wheatley experience.

       Family--I prolonged bachelor life until age 42 when I married a woman named Patricia Casey who I met when we both worked at Boston College, her alma mater. She’s from Garden City, L.I., the oldest daughter of a large Irish-Catholic family (8 kids), originally from Brooklyn where my mother was born. We’ve been married 25 years and have two red-headed kids--Daughter Kathleen, 23, a Fordham grad now working at Boston University and taking graduate courses in Public Health and Tom, 21, a junior at the University of Arizona.  Pat is an educational consultant who travels widely, working with colleges and schools.  She’s 11 years my junior, a smart, independent woman who somehow manages to factor my wandering ways into her well-organized life. Her large, rowdy family and four brothers--one who owns a pub on Long Island -- provide me with ample opportunities for as much banter, trash talk or competition as I need.

       Career-- Perhaps not surprising from the length of this novella, my career was in journalism, writing, editing and communications management. After two years as an army officer in Germany (where I served with fellow Wheatley and Rutgers grad Phil Gaynor), I returned to New York to help manage RFK’s presidential “youth campaign.” When his assassination ended the campaign, I got an MA in communications at the University of Pennsylvania and took a job as military affairs reporter for a daily newspaper in the nuclear Navy town of Bremerton, WA, near Seattle. It was at the height of the Vietnam war and my reporting on dissent, as well as  continually touted “progress,” occasionally rattled the brass (but privately pleased me, more than it did my editors.)

     I left the paper to free-lance at the Munich Olympics, arriving the day the Israeli athletes were captured by terrorists. Several months after the ensuing tragedy, I went to Israel and worked on a kibbutz, leaving just before the October war. Recounting this odyssey, I start to feel a bit like Forest Gump.

     I applied my experience to working as an editor/writer and communications director at colleges on both coasts (Hofstra, Colgate, Boston College, Santa Clara University) and nine years at Dana-Farber Cancer institute in Boston.

     It was a career I greatly enjoyed both because it was, like all reporting, a “license to be nosy” and involved working with small teams of talented, motivated communicators. The stories were of critical interest to faculty, administrators and scientists, many of whom had major egos (e.g., Harvard Med School docs, Jesuit college presidents, and professors from anthropology to zoology.)

     In times of crisis or controversy, the challenge intensified to tell the best, most accurate story, sometimes after convincing reluctant officials that candor was the only way to weather the storm. One example of this was a BC basketball point-shaving scandal that went national when an informant named Henry Hill, on whose story the book and movie “Wiseguy” was based, traded testimony for immunity in a major heist at JFK airport.

     It made for my exciting first year as BC’s communications director. I left there five years later on a wave of positive athletic news with quarterback Doug Flutie’s “Hail Mary” heroics that won him the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s best football player.

                                                 What Now?

     I cut the full-time working cord two years ago, leaving the supervision of a 15-person  publications staff to travel to Vietnam and Thailand. Having covered the war from a distance, I was curious to see what had become of Vietnam and its people.

     Traveling with several vets who’d served there during the war made the experience even more interesting since they were seeing peace and growing prosperity in places they recalled as war zones.

    The trip covered the length of the country from Hanoi to the Mekong Delta and involved exploring the Cu Chi tunnels beneath the former Saigon. The resilience, toughness, work ethic, and welcoming attitude of the Vietnamese was impressive to everyone in our group..

     The trip reinforced my feeling that the war was a tragic mistake in both human suffering and foreign policy and--since our national leadership hasn’t learned critical lessons -- we’re currently  fighting similarly unwinnable wars in the Middle East.

     One of my staff members wrote a haiku poem when I left Dana-Farber that sums up my current perspective. It read:           

                                                Adventurer’s heart

                                                   Curiosity within

                                                 Feet move to explore   

      I’ve become intrigued by the notion of living overseas at least part-time and have been exploring those options through an organization known as International Living and Investing. My travels in the past two years, aside from Vietnam, have included Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and several countries in Latin America-- Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Panama and Belize--Italy and France.

     In February, my wife and I will take our longest jaunt to Australia and New Zealand. And in April, we’ll go to Ireland to visit our son who’s studying in Dublin for four months. The lad is following in his dad’s footsteps (though hopefully not visiting as many pubs) as I have dual U.S-Irish citizenship.

     I got it based on my grandparents’ birthplace and homeland before they migrated to Boston in the late 1800s. I remind my son they came largely because my grandfather was an insurgent opposing brutal British rule in Southern Ireland. He left two steps ahead of the “Black & Tans,” ex-convicts imposing crown martial law, who confiscated his family farm.

     Given the Hennessy name, which many think is French due to the cognac, I also remind my son that his great grandfather’s flight echoed  that of James Hennessy’s 200 years earlier to fight in the ex-pat Irish “Wild Geese” battalion with the French against the English. (Happily for him, James ended up marrying into the Martell family, living in the Cognac  region of France, and founding his own branch of the cognac crop.)

    I’m not really trying to raise a young rebel, but won’t be unhappy if he follows this rhyme of family history and dares challenge the powers that be every so often. “Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable,” is a journalistic motto my daughter certainly followed,writing for a college alternative newspaper, so I know there’s some of my DNA in those acorns.         

     Despite that, and to show I’ve shed parochial attitudes from the old school daze when we used to debate the relative strength of the Israeli and Irish armies, I hereby declare that point conceded.

     Having worked in Israel, clearing boulders from farmland beside kibbutzniks who also happened to be paratroopers and jet pilots in their spare time, I gained great respect for the character of Israeli warriors.

     So, Steve Buchalter, Paul Mann, Al Jerome, and whoever else I was foolish enough to engage on the subject, you and the Israelis win that round.

     The real question is how many of our old friends and classmates will make it to the 50th celebration May 14 to 16 and what will be our next subjects? I’m sure we’ll find new and more stimulating topics than healthcare legislation. 

     I look forward to seeing as many of you as possible. Meanwhile, Cheers & L’Chayim to all.          

                                                                     Paul Hennessy

                                                                     Newton Centre, MA