The news came as a bit of a shock, and was offered up in typical Tom Hennessey-style a few weeks back.
“My final column will be in March,” Hennessey told us, simple as that, in that not-quite-gruff, no-nonsense voice of his.
Later, he told my boss that he wanted no sappy send-off, and she guaranteed him that she wouldn’t write one.
She did not tell Tom, however, that I wouldn’t.
So here we are, left with a big question: How do you put a man’s professional life in context? How do you sum up 54 years of work at a newspaper that he grew up reading as a kid in South Brewer? How do you explain that the same man ended up defining that newspaper to many who read his words, enjoyed his accompanying artwork, and lived vicariously through his trips afield?
The easy answers: You don’t. You can’t. But you’ll try.
Tom Hennessey began working at the BDN — then officially referred to as the NEWS — before he began painting the watercolors that allowed him to travel the world.
“[In the early 1960s] I was working at the NEWS as an apprentice in the composing room for 37 bucks a week and my wife was a beautician,” Hennessey told me back in 2009, when we chatted about an upcoming art exhibit featuring his work. “She came home one day and had been at the Bangor House or something and the Bangor Art Society had an art show in the lobby and the corridor.
“She said, ‘They’re selling those paintings down there. You can do that.’ So I went down there and looked and said, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’”
And “do that” he has, for the past 50 years or so.
His commissioned works have allowed him access to some of the world’s finest outdoor destinations, and his paintings and prints are on many sportsmen’s wish lists. He has rubbed shoulders with the sporting elite, but is just as happy to tell you stories about his childhood pals and the times they had on Green Lake or in the woods of South Brewer — back when South Brewer was mostly woods.
Hennessey was … is … proudly old-fashioned. He believes in celebrating the traditional and eschewing the modern, both in paint and prose. You don’t see Hennessey paintings featuring sports wearing GORE-Tex jackets. Instead, they’ll be wearing checked wool overcoats, and wool hats. The paintings could just as easily describe a 1950s Maine scene (and often do) as 2010.
Some modern gizmo-grabbers might describe Hennessey’s work as dated. Upon closer scrutiny, you find that’s not at all the case. Instead, his work is a testament to timeless values held strong, and defended fiercely.
This, his paintings and columns tell you, is MY Maine. The way life really should be.
Look at one Hennessey painting, and you appreciate it. Look at several, and you’ll recognize the artist’s work forever. Instantly. Those paintings are, for many Mainers who grew up enjoying them in the pages of this newspaper, the definition of what sporting art is supposed to be.
For more than a few, those paintings are the only sporting art they’ve likely ever seen.
Hennessey is the real deal. Every day. No matter what. Long before people started talking about “walking the walk,” Hennessey did just that. Ask him how long it took him to do a painting, he’ll tell you “all my life.”
And he’s not lying: The skills he has mastered have been honed since he was a child; the experiences his paintings describe can’t be made up, or imagined. Those, too, have been earned — bought, you might say — with boot leather and frozen extremities serving as currency.
And his prose? It, too, was uniquely Hennessey.
Fly rods often got “a case of the bends.” He regularly used a word that few others do, “directly,” to tell you what happened next. A recurring character named “Hank Lyons” graced our pages from time to time, always passing along woods wisdom and life lessons you’d remember.
Hennessey’s prose is precise, like his paintings. Few words, chosen wisely, each having a purpose.
And while Tom thanks his many editors in his final column, I can tell you that the man was being polite.
His goal, every time he wrote, was to compose something that would say what he wanted it to say, and would need no tinkering or caressing to make it right.
Hennessey, the artist, wanted to make it right before anyone else ever got to read it.
And for years, he did just that.
Today is a happy day for Tom Hennessey. He’s finally, officially, fully retiring from these pages.
For the rest of us — those of us who grew up reading his columns, enjoying his sketches, or dreaming of having a Hennessey painting grace the wall of our den — things will never be the same.
For us, it’s the end of an era that we were lucky enough to share with a true Maine outdoors icon.
Happy trails, Tom.
And thank you, from your thousands of fans.