By Brian Biggane
Neil Hennigan, chairman of the five-person sewer/septic committee appointed by Ocean Ridge to explore options for a town-wide conversion to a sewer system, is no stranger to public service. He previously served on two similar boards and sees great value in the work of such volunteers.
“It’s extremely rewarding,” said Hennigan, 71.
Practically speaking, Hennigan said, “it’s beyond the scope of a town staff that is less than the number of fingers on your hand” to take on such a project in addition to its normal workload.
“The cost of just getting a consultant would make your eyes water,” he added. “Some of that will still be necessary, but to find the best practices of other towns who have gone through the same thing, we can provide that, and do it in a way where we don’t have to say one thing is better than the other. We can at least be able to say you have what you need to make an educated decision going forward.”
In his view, the current Ocean Ridge commission is more welcoming to volunteers such as himself than it’s been in the past.
“This community is tremendously gifted in the abilities and experiences of those who live here, and many of us have the financial ability to give our time and experiences freely. We don’t want to run for office, or have an agenda. We have to help the town solve some of its issues by using us.”
Hennigan served in the U.S. Air Force and spent 35 years as a United Airlines pilot. He and wife, Zoanne, moved to Ocean Ridge in 2002.
Q: Where did you grow up and go to school? How has that influenced you?
A: I was born in the United Kingdom and emigrated with my parents, to Canada first, [where we] lived in Toronto. Crossed over and lived in Niagara Falls and Rochester, N.Y. each for a year. My dad was a bricklayer, so he worked his way south, left the family in Rochester, and when spring came, we moved to Washington, D.C. I went to high school there, then the University of Maryland.
Coming from an immigrant family, education was the name of the game. We were never well off when I was growing up. I was the oldest of three children. I put myself through college, ended up joining the Air Force during the Vietnam era, though I didn’t serve there. I became a pilot and after eight years in the Air Force got a job with United Airlines, where I was a commercial pilot for 35 years before retiring in 2013. My family’s background is Irish, and even in the UK, being Irish means being a second-class citizen. After the war my dad tried very hard to start a business and never got any financial support. So, my dad got a sponsorship out of Canada and went there on his own. He left me and my brother, who was 1, with our mother for another year until we could follow him. It was an odyssey.
I saw how hard it was for my parents to make ends meet. You just know what they did for you. And I can’t let it go; it’s the person that I am. I was the first in the family to be college educated, made it into the Air Force and became an officer. But my dad taught me the value of a hard day’s work. There’s nothing wrong with getting your hands dirty. My mother was as stoic as they came. Both of them were just classic. And my dad, he’s the core of who I am.
Q: What professions have you worked in? What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
A: In my second year of college I got a job working for an engineering company that did road design. It was a public entity supported by the petroleum industry and it was located on the campus of the University of Maryland. They were looking for somebody to work in a laboratory part-time, and I was treated as faculty, so I could arrange my classes so I could work two days a week and go to school three days a week. I did that for three years of college and through that was able to be at the leading edge of computers.
By the time I was ready to graduate, I was still going to be waiting six months before I went to the Air Force, and I was taken on as a research associate. That has followed me my whole life, because even after leaving the Air Force, in the two years before I joined United, I was hired as a research scientist and worked for NASA for 21/2 years while I was furloughed. I used those skills in the Air Force also, doing R&D flying and as a project manager. I got to round out my skills [at United] as more than just a pilot, and I’ve maintained my interest in computers all these years. I still remember bringing home my first IBM PC and have had my head in that ever since.
Q: What advice do you have for a young person seeking a career today?
A: I’m a task person, and the joy of flying is, you do your homework, you study, and when you do your job it has a finite beginning, a finite end, and you can evaluate whether you did it well. I always found that enjoyable.
I’ve been to London 50 times, but only one day at a time. It’s always, what is the next thing I want to do there? I’ve taken advantage of that. We still travel extensively, and I’ve tried to get my children to do the same.
My advice? Don’t get pigeonholed by a job or be afraid of coming to a crossroad. Life is a journey, so take it. If you can go left or right, and it comes down to it, flip a coin. Don’t be defined by this one thing you do. Find out what kind of person you are or develop the kind of person you want to become.
Q: How did you choose to make your home in Ocean Ridge?
A: We were fortunate that both our sets of parents lived into their 90s. They were here, so we decided it was time to not do it long-distance [from California] anymore. My family was in Sarasota and hers was in Pompano Beach. We looked from the Florida Keys all the way up to St. Augustine. I liked the west coast of Florida, because it was quieter, and we didn’t like how busy Fort Lauderdale and even Palm Beach were.
We made an offer on a place in Jupiter, and one day my daughter came in and told me to turn on the TV, and it turned out to be 9/11. I watched the second tower go down and they were speculating what airline it was, and I saw it was United Airlines. I told my wife United is going to go bankrupt; we were in trouble and this would take us to bankruptcy.
So, we got out of that [deal] and a friend of mine told me about a little community called Ocean Ridge. We came here and found it great.
Q: What’s your favorite part about living in Ocean Ridge?
A: It’s unobtrusive, people leave us alone. It’s small enough you can get your arms around it. It’s close enough you can get anything you want. There are great people here. Good friends, good neighbors, good community.
Q: What book are you reading now?
A: When I was a kid my dad would get me an almanac, or a big coffee table book, Headline Stories of the Last 100 Years — things to pique your interest. I started a long time ago to grab a volume of the Britannica and start browsing.
Now all that’s on the internet. So, my favorite book has become Wikipedia. I get up each morning, I read the news, and it will take me on a divergent story where I want to know more. And off I go. I always want to know how things connect and Wikipedia works that way.
Q: What music do you listen to when you want to relax? When you want to be inspired?
A: I still listen to classic rock, and I’m still part of the Woodstock generation. That ain’t going to change. I still like Jimi Hendrix; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Eric Clapton. We’ve got great speakers in the house and it can get loud.
Q: Have you had mentors in your life?
A: The formative person in my life is my dad, and the person who tempered it all is my wife. She came from a different type of family. I grew up with no relatives here; later on, I got one cousin who came. I didn’t have aunts, uncles and births, those things, and you’re sort of the outsider. I met her in college, and she had a 180-degree different background. Her family took my family in, including my parents. She took me from being extremely introverted, so where now I can masquerade as an extrovert. That’s important. And it’s lasted 49 years.
Q: If your life story were to be made into a movie, who would play you?
A: I’d say Henry Fonda in Grapes of Wrath. That’s what my life was like.
Q: Who/what makes you laugh?
A: My Boston terrier, Potter. What’s typical of dogs, I could literally walk out that door, go to the mailbox, and when I came back it’s like he’s seeing a long-lost friend of 20 years.