The late Tom Hennessey, hailed by some as the greatest athlete in the history of Brookline High School, went on to star in college football and play professionally for the Boston Patriots.
But it was his athleticism combined with a career that turned to education and public service that have galvanized some of the biggest names in Brookline to call for a local park to be renamed for Hennessey, who died in 2012 at the age of 71.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, former governor Michael Dukakis, and New Balance Athletic Shoe chairman Jim Davis are just some of the Brookline High School alumni backing the effort to rename the Cypress Street Playground at the school for Hennessey.
But in football terms, the effort to rename the park after Hennessey has already been forced to punt. Brookline’s Park and Recreation Commission voted unanimously in January against renaming the park for Hennessey, despite the support from Kraft, Davis, and Dukakis.
John Bain, chairman of the commission, said the vote followed a policy that states that in order to name a park after someone, the person has to be an exceptional individual who has made a significant contribution to the town’s parks and recreation system.
Bain said despite Hennessey’s accomplishments as a high school and professional athlete, and later as an educator, Brookline School Committee member and selectman, it was not clear that he made any significant contribution to parks or recreation.
Jack Kendrick, a lifelong friend of Hennessey who is spearheading the effort to rename the park, called the commission’s decision “absurd.”
“You have no idea how admired Tom Hennessey was in his generation,” said Kendrick. “He was a legend when he was at Brookline High School, but he was humble, nonetheless.”
“Everybody knew Tom,” said Dukakis in an e-mail to the Globe. “He was a fine student and a great athlete and there aren’t too many BHS grads that played in the NFL. He was also an impressive educator and administrator in the Boston schools. What made him even more special was that he was willing to get deeply and actively involved in the town’s political and public affairs.”
Bain said the commission struggled with Kendrick’s proposal to rename the field for Hennessey for two months. Although Hennessey was exceptional, the town has numerous outstanding individuals, said Bain. He added that the commission may revisit the policy.
“It really wasn’t easy to make a decision,” said Bain.
Kendrick, 69, who was a few classes behind Hennessey at Brookline High School and is a former Brookline town clerk, said he does not understand how anyone could stand in the way of naming the park for Hennessey.
In addition to serving multiple stints on Brookline’s School Committee, Hennessey also served on the Board of Selectmen in the 1990s, and at different times chaired both boards. Kendrick said he ran Hennessey’s first School Committee campaign in 1969, and he believes Hennessey is the only person in the town’s history to have chaired the committee and the Board of Selectmen.
In a letter to the Park and Recreation Commission, Kraft, who was president of Hennessey’s graduating class at Brookline High School in 1959, said the football star was raised on Cypress Street, and naming the park for him would be a fitting tribute to one of the town’s finest products.
“Tom’s only motivation in serving Brookline was only to give back to the town he loved so much,” Kraft wrote. “He did this all with distinction and humility. He truly was a ‘municipal statesman.’ ’’
Ed Schluntz, a longtime football coach and athletic director for the high school, said Hennessey was humble despite being probably the best athlete ever to come out of Brookline.
“Certainly he was the best one that I ever coached,” said Schluntz.
Hennessey starred in football, basketball, and track at the high school and went on to play at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, where he was named Catholic All-American his senior year. The first time he touched the ball for the college’s varsity squad, he scored a touchdown at Harvard Stadium.
During his two years with the Boston Patriots in 1965 and 1966, Hennessey played defensive back, intercepted passes from Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath, and was named the Patriots’ rookie of the year in his first season.
Then Hennessey began a nearly 40-year career in Boston public schools as a coach and administrator at Brighton High School and as the first headmaster at Boston’s Madison Park High School.
He was married to Mary Salmon Hennessey, and the couple raised three daughters, who went to Ivy League schools.
Since the Park and Recreation Commission voted against renaming the park, Kendrick said he has been doing more research and has found that while Hennessey was a selectmen, the board recommended that millions of dollars be spent on park projects and Hennessey worked on establishing the hiring process for the town’s recreation director.
Kendrick said he plans to take the newly found evidence back to the commission.
Bain said Kendrick is welcome to come back to the Park and Recreation Commission, which will be open to new suggestions.
Although ultimately it is up to Brookline’s Town Meeting to decide on whether to rename the park for Hennessey, Kendrick said he prefers not to proceed without first getting endorsements from the commission and the town’s naming committee.
Kendrick said he also wants to raise private funds to place a memorial or statue of Hennessey at the park and start a scholarship under his name at the high school.
“When you have someone who has been so impactful on your life and they pass away, you need to do something to recognize them in a meaningful way,” Kendrick said.Brock Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.