Bob Hennessey believes in government. He has worked in it his whole life, first as a press secretary on Capitol Hill fresh out of college, then as a legislative director, then in government relations for SeaTac Airport and now for Seattle Public Utilities and, for the past 12 years, as a volunteer on the Vashon Island School District Board of Directors. But Hennessey did not run for re-election in last week’s general election and will attend his last school board meeting tomorrow, Thursday.
“It’s my time,” he answered when asked why he was deciding to step down from the role that has defined him for more than a decade. “You start seeing issues you dealt with in year one in year 11 and it’s hard to keep being passionate and open-minded.”
And there has been no shortage of issues during Hennessey’s tenure. He was elected to the board in 2005 when the district was under the leadership of Mimi Walker, who resigned in 2007 after being put on administrative leave just as the district began to discover it had no money. Later that year, beloved McMurray Middle School teacher David Foege died by suicide.
“That was just horrible,” Hennessey said. “There were some very, very down times.”
That next year, in 2008, three board members were not re-elected. Hennessey and John “Oz” Osborne were the only two incumbents. Then the recession hit and the district laid off teachers and cut bus service. In response, a group of island men, with no affiliation to or permission from the school district, got creative and sold more than 650 DreamBoats calendars that were an artful display of 12 photographs of nude island men.
“That became a community controversy,” he said. “It was a much different time.”
The district slowly started to build up its finances, the Vashon School Foundation was formed and in 2009 the district brought a $75.5 million bond to the voters to renovate the high school. It failed with more than 50 percent of voters opposing it.
Hennessey said that was one of his biggest regrets while on the board.
“It was too big too fast,” he said looking back last week. “Politics is the art of the possible and $75 million wasn’t possible at that time.”
Board member Steve Ellison, who will also attend his last meeting tomorrow night, said it was during that bond attempt that he first met Hennessey.
“Bob and I were adversaries 12 years ago when he was at our door trying to get us to approve this $75 million bond,” Ellison recalled during a party for Hennessey on Nov. 4.
A $45.5 million bond to build a new high school went on to pass in 2011.
Throughout it all, Hennessey’s three children were making their way through school. When Hennessey was first elected, his daughter Emma was 10, Lily was 8 and Will was 4. Now, Emma and Lily have graduated and Will is a junior at Vashon High School.
“They’ve kind of only known me as a school board dad,” Hennessey said. “They stopped going grocery shopping with me because they were so disgusted and it took forever to get through the aisles.”
But the disgust eventually wore off and Hennessey was able to give Emma her diploma at her graduation in 2013.
“He considers that the moment that summarizes his time on the school board,” his wife, Lauri Hennessey said.
He gave Lily hers in 2015. During that Nov. 4 party, in a video, she thanked her father for the work he put in and said watching his work on the board taught her valuable lessons.
“I remember how hard you worked to fix that leaky faucet that made a puddle that I slipped on in the high school gym giving me a concussion,” Lily said. “I remember … seeing you wander the high school halls so many times on your days off looking for improvements that could be made. You showed us the importance of education, contributing to one’s community and how to act as a leader as you fight for what you believe in.”
Will had similar sentiments about his father and said that he used to be annoyed by the way his father would check to see “if the water was draining around the school.”
In total, eight islanders told Hennessey what they appreciated about his time on the board through the video and dozens of others gathered in person. Dedication and helping others were qualities that rang true time and again.
“Bob was about democracy,” VISD Superintendent Michael Soltman said. “He stood for protecting the taxpayer dollar. He stood for maintaining our facilities in the top condition. He was all about fairness for everyone in the district and in the community.”
Ever humble, Hennessey talked about the school district’s other volunteers — he directly cited coaches — and said “everybody is doing something” and his time on the board was “just the part that I enjoy doing.”
“I always resisted a little bit when people would say, ‘Thank you for your service. It must be hard.’ It never was,” he said. “It was something that gives me joy, gives me pleasure because I … really believe that government can be very good for the people and we’re not all dumb or lazy or slackers and I feel very deeply that this district could show the community that government can work for the people.”