Tom Hennessy – A Man for all Seasons
Over the past few years, the Breezy Point Historical Society has brought recognition to some of the early entrepreneurs in what were the original three summer colonies, not merely because they managed businesses but, rather, because they created new or improved services that were instrumental in how the early communities evolved. This year we are adding Thomas Hennessy to our Hall of Fame. Tom was a quintessential entrepreneur whose mind was always percolating with new business ideas. But he was much more. He was an unflagging volunteer whose role in advancing community health and safety, and facilitating new and necessary services as we transitioned from a summer resort to an increasingly year-round neighborhood was paramount. He also served as President of the Rockaway Point Association. But even beyond that, in both his businesses and his unending participation in community events and activities, he was a remarkable connecting link throughout our waterfront home. Tom’s nephew Kevin Danaher related that Tom’s life was all about service. As his son Michael recently told us, no matter what, if there was a need, Tom was there. Ironically, he hated sand, his Irish skin was scorched in the summer sun, and he rarely went to the beach. But that just left him more time for his businesses and his never-ending commitment to our emergency services, which increasingly became critical features of our community’s growth.
First, his businesses. Tom, whose father died when he was twelve, always worked, and worked hard. He moved to Breezy full time with his family in 1968. In partnership with Fran Jamin, he operated the Bay Terrace primarily as a summer business even as he continued his employment with a Manhattan supermarket beset by long hours, several holdups, and a management indifferent to its employees. After too long a period of working seven days a week leaving only Sunday dinner as family time, Tom quit Manhattan and never looked back. He was soon joined by Sean O’Rourke in running the winter and summer stores. He started a Breezy Point travel business, and wrote the Pointer column “Know Before You Go.” Several people described his travel business as a regular social center where residents would congregate and where, like the former bartender that he once had been in his father-in-law’s Manhattan tavern, Tom would occasionally act as therapist. He was described as part Don Quixote, often tilting at windmills advocating for community policies which didn’t necessarily work out – he lost on the pool and sewers - and he wasn’t shy about expressing his opinions, but he was also part Ralph Kramden, always willing to try out a new scheme. When the mosquito plague became unbearable during the 1970s, purple martens were reputed to eat the swarming vampires. Tom tried selling purple marten birdhouses. Unfortunately, the seagulls ate the purple martens, so the idea never made it past a couple of summer seasons. Always trying to raise funds for our emergency services, Tom initiated a community circus. Family members recall Tom riding atop an elephant to the Sugar Bowl. The idea was not repeated for what, now, may seem obvious reasons. It’s a matter of historic record that this was the first, and the last, elephant roaming Breezy. But about that elephant…. the trek to the Bowl did have a bit of a temporary afterlife consisting of the immense pachyderm’s immense …. er, leavings. Tom managed to persuade some residents that the leavings made for superb garden fertilizer. We’re still trying to nail down whether that resulted in a commercial transaction – apparently, yes, money was exchanged - or was just a clever way to facilitate a free cleanup.
This brings us to a more serious discussion - Tom’s decades volunteering for the Rockaway Point Fire Department & Ambulance Corp. Tom Jr. recalled admiring his father’s management style as Chief, getting each volunteer to deliver a personal best – some as accountants, others as engineers, or mechanics, electricians, or administrators. Tom responded to every ambulance or fire call; if he was at business or in bed, he dropped all and rushed out to respond. It might be a middle of the night heart attack, or a mother in labor, or any number of incidents in between. Tom’s wife Maureen recalls Tom’s quip that he probably was in more women’s bedrooms than any man in Breezy Point. Many people likely lived and babies safely entered the world because of that dedicated response. Michael recalled that as survivors of the infamous Golden Venture scrambled ashore in Fort Tilden, Tom and the Ambulance Corp were there to provide aid. As the tragedy on 9/11 was unfolding, Tom gathered up volunteers and sped to respond, after which they were in the ambulance that delivered water to responding FDNY firefighters. Artie Lighthall, who knew Tom well during these years, recalled joining him on many city-wide fire drills. These included a joint training operation that involved burning down old barracks in Fort Tilden. Artie and Tom were in the first ambulance responding to post-9/11 Belle Harbor plane crash. Artie also credited Tom with initiating the community’s Home Alert System. The Ambulance Corp purchased and installed the units in residents’ homes which were connected by phone to the Security Booth. This was a life-saving device for many of our disabled, elderly and housebound residents. The $500 cost for each was absorbed by the Ambulance Corp and installed in homes with no costs or fees imposed on the resident. These units are now in 250 Breezy homes.
These different kinds of episodes, stretching over the decades of Tom Hennessy’s life in Breezy Point, describe someone who very much was a participant in our history, a connecting link who shaped it not only as an entrepreneur but also by shaping the community’s emergency response services as Breezy evolved in the decades following the Coop’s creation.