Much admired as an athlete, Tom Hennessey scored a touchdown for Holy Cross at Harvard Stadium the first time he touched the football as a varsity player and went on to play two seasons for the Boston Patriots.
He was also respected as the first headmaster at Boston’s Madison Park High School and by friends and family who called him a selfless benefactor.
“Tom devoted his life to giving back, always reaching out,” said New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who was president of the Brookline High 1959 graduating class that included Mr. Hennessey, a three-sport star.
The alumni organization, Kraft said, has been involved with a Thanksgiving basket giveaway for Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries, “and Tom was part of that. He was a wonderful gentleman who never looked for accolades, and I was proud to call him my friend.”
Mr. Hennessey, an inductee to the Brookline High and Holy Cross athletic halls of fame, died of cancer Sunday in New England Baptist Hospital. He was 71 and lived in Orleans.
“We were called the ‘H-Bombs’ by the Boston papers,” said Don Hootstein, Mr. Hennessey’s running mate in the Brookline backfield and a lifelong friend. “I was at left halfback, and he was the fullback.”
A football cocaptain his senior season in 1962 at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mr. Hennessey had played for two legendary football head coaches.
He was coached by Harry Downes at Brookline and by Dr. Eddie Anderson at Holy Cross, where Mr. Hennessey was Crusader of the Year in 1963. He also received the Davitt Award as the team’s best running back and an award from teammates as the player of whom they were most proud.
“There aren’t many like this man, Hennessey,” Anderson told the Globe in 1961. “He does everything a football coach wants from a player.”
Jim Hennessey of Mashpee said his brother’s first college varsity game is part of family lore. Jim arrived early, but their parents, Dr. James Hennessey Sr. and Gert Hennessey, “were caught in traffic at Coolidge Corner, and when they got to Harvard Stadium, they heard people yelling and saw Holy Cross celebrating in the end zone.”
Dr. Hennessey “asked what happened, and someone told him a kid from Brookline just ran for a touchdown. So my Dad said to my Mom, ‘Gert, I told you we should have left early.’ They were never late again,” said Jim, a longtime assistant football coach at Northeastern University who was quarterback of Brookline’s undefeated 1954 football team.
Tom Hennessey helped lead Holy Cross to two wins over archrival Boston College. An All-East selection and Catholic All-American his senior year at Holy Cross, Mr. Hennessey had career statistics of 1,157 yards rushing and nine touchdowns, 47 pass receptions for 779 yards and three more touchdowns, and 29 kick returns for 723 yards.
“He was the fastest player on our team and one of the most respected,” said Jon Morris, a center who was Mr. Hennessey’s college and Patriots teammate and who was inducted last year into the Patriots Hall of Fame. “Tom was called the ‘Brookline blur’ and brought an exuberance and joy to the field.”
Mr. Hennessey graduated from Holy Cross in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He received a master’s degree in educational administration from Northeastern in 1971.
He played one season with the Boston Sweepers minor league football team and was a defensive back for the Patriots in 1965 and 1966.
Mr. Hennessey then began a nearly 40-year career in the Boston public schools.
He was a coach and administrator at Brighton High School and was named the first headmaster at Madison Park.
“Tom was accepting of everybody he worked with at a time of uncertainty in the early days of desegregation,” said Marya Levenson, who was the school’s assistant headmaster and currently is director of Brandeis University’s education program. “He believed in building a school community by putting together a diverse staff. Working with him was one of the greatest experiences of my professional life.”
Billy Allen, Madison Park’s former head football coach, said Mr. Hennessey was a tireless worker with an unswerving loyalty. “He seemed to be everywhere at once, a whirling dervish,” Allen said.
Along with Allen and other original employees of the school, Mr. Hennessey enjoyed annual reunions at the Corrib Pub in West Roxbury.
“Whether helping start our successful boys’ soccer team or introducing theater arts into the curriculum, Tom had a way about him that made you want to work hard, because if you succeeded, so did he,” said Al Butters, one of that group and a former Madison Park coach.
In December 1986, Jim Thornton, Mr. Hennessey’s boyhood friend and Madison Park’s athletic director, died of a heart attack at 46. Mr. Hennessey contacted former Patriots teammate Bob Cappadona and through their initial efforts the James M. Thornton Memorial Scholarship was established at Northeastern, where Thornton and Cappadona had played football. Mr. Hennessey remained close to Thornton’s wife, Dorothy, and her three children.
“Tommy took my kids to games when they were little, and he helped set up the fund-raising brunches for the scholarship,” she said. “He was just the best.”
He retired in 2003, after working in the school system’s central office.
Mr. Hennessey and his wife, the former Mary Salmon, raised three athletically talented daughters. Sara Berney of Needham formerly ran track at Brookline High and Brown University. Tina, who lives in Radnor, Pa., was an All-America lacrosse player at Cornell University and is a member of its Athletic Hall of Fame. Maria, of Boulder, Colo., was a state champion runner at Brookline High and competed in lacrosse and track at Harvard.
In addition to his wife, daughters, and brother Jim, Mr. Hennessey leaves two other brothers, John of Dorchester and Michael of North Reading, and six grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Friday in St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Brookline. He will be buried alongside his parents and sister, Trudy, at Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline.
“He was the best father and grandfather you could possibly imagine,” Sara said. “His spirit and sense of humor was contagious, and he made you feel special.”