As an administrator at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, John Hennessey set a goal that was nothing short of taking a graduate program which was all-male and all-white and making it neither.
He initially helped lead diversity efforts as associate dean — the first African-American student graduated from Tuck in 1966. The following year, when Dartmouth president John Sloan Dickey asked Mr. Hennessey to become Tuck’s sixth dean, the business school remained an all-male bastion. Tuck was so cloistered that several years earlier it was considered innovative when administrators began vigorously recruiting applicants who weren’t Dartmouth undergraduates.
Mr. Hennessey, who was 92 when he died Thursday, was a clear choice for dean, but the answer he gave Dickey wasn’t as obvious.
“I said to John that I could not accept the deanship unless the trustees were comfortable with Tuck’s commencement of coeducation. And to my pleasure, John was able to accept that,” Mr. Hennessey said in a 1996 Dartmouth oral history interview. “And indeed the first woman, then, arrived at Tuck in September 1968, when I began my deanship.”
A half-century later, his groundbreaking stand still looms large in the history of Dartmouth, where women didn’t arrive as undergraduates until the fall of 1972, four years after Mr. Hennessey pushed aside Tuck’s gender barrier. As dean, and through personal example, his diversity efforts resonated throughout Dartmouth’s Ivy League campus and beyond to other universities.
“There is simply no way to overstate John’s impact on our institution,” Matthew Slaughter, Tuck’s current dean, said in a message to the school. “John presided over one of the most consequential periods in Tuck’s history, transforming our community and campus and ushering in important changes that helped make Tuck the vibrant school it is today.”
Mr. Hennessey also was the founding chairman of the Council on Opportunity in Graduate Management Education, which promoted access for minority students to top MBA programs. He cofounded Dartmouth’s Institute for the Study of Applied and Professional Ethics and taught business ethics. The discipline was professional and personal.
“Above everything else he valued honesty and trust and integrity,” said his daughter, Martha Hennessey of Hanover, N.H., who is a state senator. “I certainly knew as a child that those were the things that mattered most.”
In 1976, he stepped down as dean and kept teaching at Dartmouth for a decade until retiring as the Charles Henry Jones professor of management emeritus. He then was appointed the first provost of the University of Vermont, where in 1989 he served as interim president.
The following year he returned to live in Hanover, home to Dartmouth, where his board appointments included Mary Hitchcock Hospital, whose transition he helped shepherd as it became part of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
For Mr. Hennessey, though, removing gender and racial barriers remained career milestones. Alongside Karl Hill, his predecessor as Tuck’s dean, he recruited applicants from historically black colleges in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “Both Karl and I felt that the soul of America was on the line,” he said in the oral history.
During the advent of second-wave feminism, admitting women to Tuck and as undergraduates presented new challenges. Even top administrators who supported the changes didn’t realize how much they were “being paternalistic and fatherly,” Mr. Hennessey recalled in the oral history, adding that “the idea that it can all be done with good intentions and with the ‘good old boys’ simply being gooder, isn’t going to work. And you’re going to have to listen to wise women.”
The older of two siblings, John W. Hennessey Jr. was born in Danville, Pa., and grew up in York, Pa., where his father, John Sr., worked for York Safe & Lock Co. His mother, the former Martha Scott Braun, marched in the suffrage movement as a Vassar College student. Feminism is “in my genes,” Mr. Hennessey told The New York Times.
Only 16 when he entered Princeton University, Mr. Hennessey joined the Army during World War II, when he turned 18. A first lieutenant, he served in the ordnance department in the Philippines before returning to Princeton, from which he graduated in 1948, writing his senior thesis on universal health care.
That same year he married Jean Marie Lande, who lived in the same Vassar dorm as his sister. They moved to Cambridge and he graduated in 1950 from Harvard Business School — an accomplishment that later troubled him. His wife’s Harvard Law School application was rejected when the school accepted only men. “I was wrong to be willing to go to Harvard Business School when it was all-male,” he said in the oral history. “I mean, why did that happen? Well, it was America. America was slow to pick this up.”
He also received a doctorate from the University of Washington — though he avoided the title Dr. – and taught there before accepting Tuck’s offer in 1957.
Mr. Hennessey often spoke about how any Democrat who wanted to win in New Hampshire sought the counsel of his wife, Jean, who hosted the likes of Bill Clinton, before he committed to his 1992 presidential bid. They conferred in her living room and she rode with him when he left for a speech in Manchester, N.H. — with Mr. Hennessey driving behind to bring her home. Jean Hennessey died in 2004.
She and Mr. Hennessey had previously made campaign contributions to Madeleine Kunin, a Democrat who served three terms as Vermont governor — the only woman elected to that office. Months after Jean died, Mr. Hennessey and Kunin had lunch to discuss an organization on whose board both served. She had tickets to that night’s Vermont Symphony Orchestra performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. “I guess I have to thank Beethoven,” she recalled, “because he said yes.”
They married in 2006 and moved to Vermont. His health had been failing when he died in the Wake Robin Continuing Care Retirement Community in Shelburne.
“We just understood each other. He was very aware of what is ethical to do,” Kunin said. “He was just gentle, kind, and still had a great strength. And he had wit. He enjoyed life and knew what he was. You can see why I fell in love with this man.”
In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Hennessey leaves his son, John III of Weston; four stepchildren, Julia Kunin of Brooklyn, N.Y., Peter Kunin of Burlington, Vt., Adam Kunin of Shelburne, Vt., and Daniel Kunin of Charlotte, Vt.; three grandchildren; six step-grandchildren; and five great-granddaughters.
The public is invited to a circle of remembrance at 2 p.m. Jan. 27 at Wake Robin in Shelburne. A service in Hanover, N.H., will be announced.
A doting and engaged father, grandfather, and husband, Mr. Hennessey “was a remarkable model to me for what a good marriage looked like,” his daughter said.
He glowed while speaking about his late wife’s achievements and about his admiration for all of Kunin’s accomplishments and talents. At a family gathering two years ago, his health declining, he sat in a wheelchair off the dance floor and watched as his wife, the former governor, twirled with her grandchildren.
To be heard above the band, he inclined his head to the person next to him and asked a question his smile answered: “Isn’t she wonderful?”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.