Tom Hennessey of Hampden, a man whose paintings memorialized the traditional Maine outdoor activities that he loved, and who worked as an artist and columnist for Bangor Daily News readers for 54 years, died Friday after a year-long battle with hemochromatosis. He was 81.
Hennessey began working at the BDN on Jan. 10, 1959, when he was just 21 years old, and officially retired from the paper on March 1, 1996. Even the most loyal BDN readers didn’t realize that fact, because Hennessey continued to write and contribute artwork to the paper’s pages for another 17 years on a freelance basis. His last regular column appeared in March 2013.
He is survived by his wife, Nancy, and three children: Jeffrey Michael Hennessey, Julie Ann Marston and Hope Ellen Hennessey. He was predeceased by an infant daughter, Jill Hennessey, and 12 memorable bird dogs. According to his obituary, at Tom’s request, there will be no services.
“Tom was a colleague at the News but we also became great friends fishing and hunting,” said Bangor Daily News Publisher Richard J. Warren. “He became a mentor for me in conservation and field sports. And he was one of the great ones.”
Hennessey’s work was a testament to timeless values that he held strong, and defended fiercely, depicting the Maine he grew up with, knew well and loved.
Hennessey was always interested in art, and when patrons approached him at art show receptions, he told them just that.
“Invariably, somebody will say, ‘How long did it take you to do that painting?’” Hennessey said in a 2009 interview. “And right off, I say, ‘All my life.’ That’s the honest answer.”
Hennessey’s work caught the eye of many sporting folk for a simple reason: It reflected timeless outdoor experiences. Hennessey never portrayed his hunters wearing bright-orange clothing, for instance, choosing to paint them wearing green checked coats. Gizmos and gadgets may have invaded the outdoor world, but they never made it into Hennessey’s paintings.
In addition to his work at the BDN, Hennessey was also the author of three books: “Feathers ’n Fins,” “Handy to Home” and “Leave Some for Seed.”
Hennessey was working at the BDN as an apprentice in the composing room, making $37 a week, in the early 1960s when his wife told him about an art exhibition she had seen at the Bangor House. He went and looked at the assembled pieces and decided to submit some of his own.
That paved the way to a professional career as an artist, and his friend Dr. Frank Gilley took a couple of paintings to the renowned New York City Crossroads of Sport gallery. In 1964 the gallery director wrote Hennessey and asked for five more watercolors, which he sold for $150 apiece.
Hennessey’s art allowed him to travel the world, at one point hopping on a plane every other week to do commissioned pieces around the globe.
“I often think, if it hadn’t been for painting, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met [wouldn’t have happened],” he said. “It all came through painting.”
But he admits that he nearly threw his art career away after struggling to properly depict the water in a fishing scene, then throwing his paint and brushes in a trash can. The next day, he took the can to the dump and planned to dispose of them. A strong wind conspired to change his mind.
“I was turning to get back in [my car] and a piece of paper came rolling across the dump. This was unbelievable,” he said. “It slapped right up against the side window on my station wagon. It was a reproduction or something of a watercolor painting done by Gordon Grant. He was a famous marine painter.”
Hennessey looked at that scene, focusing on the water. Then he realized what he needed to do.
“I could see what he did,” Hennessey said.
Inspired again, he gathered up his discarded paint and brushes and headed back home.
Hennessey’s works depict scenes that reflected some of the things he liked best. Hunting with a well-trained bird dog, fishing from a vintage canoe, sharing time with a special hunting buddy.
“I just paint what I do,” Hennessey said. “I can’t imagine sitting down and painting a flower or something like that. When I’m out fishing or hunting, or just out around with the dog, I’ll see something, something will happen, and that will inspire [the art].”
And the art, he said, was the reason for creating. Not the profit. Never the profit.
“I would paint even if I never sold a painting, because art is its own reward,” he said. “Doing it is rewarding whether anybody wants it or not.”
Hennessey finally decided to stop writing for the BDN on a freelance basis after a 54-year career. His final column, which was published on March 1, 2013, explained why.
“The primary reason for my packing it in is that, after 35 years of writing and illustrating columns and features, my creative pool is draining. Admittedly, the words don’t appear on the screen as easily and eagerly now as they did back along,” Hennessey wrote. “And, of course, times have changed. Accordingly, the cultural shift and political pressures now affecting outdoors writing nationwide convinces me that it’s time to fold my tent. All things considered it can be said that I’m a dinosaur. But all said and done I can say I’m glad of it.”
And then he shared a closing thought.
“As an outdoors writer it was my privilege and pleasure to be a spokesman for sportsmen; especially when anti-hunting organizations and animal-rights groups attempted to rob sportsmen of their treasured outdoor cultures, traditions and heritage by banning hunting, trapping, even fishing. All of which are integral to fisheries and wildlife management and important to the state’s economy,” he wrote.
“In closing I want to thank my five readers for following the trail of words I left on these pages,” he quipped. “Moreover, I wish them good luck and the best of times on their favorite hunting and fishing grounds — trusting, of course, that they’ll leave some for seed.”
After that column ran, reader Bob Mercer of Bucksport reached out to explain how important Hennessey’s words had always been.
“Only the wealthy can enjoy originals of his art, but all of us benefited from his writing. His effect on the outdoor community cannot be measured. He is one of the last true outdoor writers. Most of what we have now are reporters,” Mercer wrote. “His writing takes me back to Bill Geagan; his use of metaphor is exquisite. He ranks right up there with Gordon MacQuarrie as an outdoor writer, and if you are really a reader of things outdoors, you know that is a mouthful.”
Tom Hennessey’s work touched thousands of Mainers. Share your memories of Tom with us. Send your emails to email@example.com