Several years ago, Ray Hennessy and his three sons put their heads together while talking about the ultimate golf trip. What better way for a father to spend time with his boys than a few days in California playing Pebble Beach Golf Links. It was their ideal foursome playing in heaven.
Hennessy quietly saved up money for the getaway with the idea he would treat Ray Jr., Sean and Brian. He was proud of his sons, and the fathers they had become, how they shared his passion for sports and people, how they felt obligated to the next generation the way he did. The trip was planned for Aug. 6-10.
It was going to be perfect.
“We booked it,” his son, Ray Jr. said. “We were going to Pebble and the four of us were going to play. That was his lifetime goal, to play Pebble Beach with us. Now it’s going to be one of those deals where we have an empty seat in the cart. It’s going to be tough. But he’ll be playing with us.”
Hennessy died at age 70 last Thursday after suffering a heart attack while attending his granddaughter Meghan’s graduation ceremonies at the University of South Carolina. For anyone who knew him, it was only fitting that he passed away with his wife, Kathy, at his side while celebrating a member of the family tree.
This was the same man who in March returned exhausted after a long trip from vacation in Hawaii, hopped on a plane the next day for Clearwater, Fla., and met Ray Jr. to watch another granddaughter, Molly, play in a softball tournament. He had friends everywhere because, well, he was everywhere.
In addition to his wife and three sons, Hennessy is survived by daughters Quinn and Erin, nine grandchildren and hundreds, maybe thousands, of players who benefited from his guidance. The impact he had could be counted in the scores of people who reached out to his family over the past week.
“He could have run for office,” his son, Sean, said before his father’s wake Wednesday, where there was a line of people paying respects that went out the door of the Lakeside Memorial Funeral Home in Hamburg. “You don’t really realize it until something like this happens and you get these phone calls, emails and text messages from generations of kids he coached or worked with.”
Hennessy was a dominant pitcher for Kenmore West back in the 1960s. He played at Santa Ana College and had a tryout with the Los Angeles Angels. His true gift wasn’t his vast knowledge of sports but his true understanding of people. The former made him a great coach, the latter a great person.
He had the spirit of a teenager but was unwavering when it came to old-school fundamentals. He maintained discipline but had a soft side that instilled confidence. He insisted that his teams played the right way while having fun. Baseball or business, his message was delivered with the right combination.
And that’s why he was revered.
Hennessy coached Canisius College baseball for 13 years. He coached youth baseball in West Seneca for a decade, Fourteen Holy Helpers for seven years, St. Francis for five, AAA Muny for nine. He coached basketball at St. Francis for 20 years, Canisius High for 10, Cardinal O’Hara for three and Park School for two. He was coaching Christian Central Academy baseball when he died.
After four decades of giving back, it makes you wonder if his heart had given everything it had, figuratively and literally, until it had nothing left.
“Looking back, being involved with coaching and all the craziness, my dad always had a tone that was calming and inspiring,” Sean said. “It was never panic. He was never yelling and screaming. He had a demeanor about him, especially with baseball and the way he handled himself. He had a connection with everybody.”
Hennessy was awaiting word on whether he would be inducted into the Western New York Baseball Hall of Fame, surprising only that it took this long. The decision will come down in June. He should be a lock considering how much he has given, multiplied by a trickle-down effect that could be felt for generations.
He passed his passion for sports to his five children, particularly his sons. In turn, they carried his message to their own children. Sports was merely his vehicle to teach kids about life. Wins and losses? They were tools for managing highs and lows in the real world, lessons about resiliency and commitment.
All three of his boys played college baseball. Ray Jr. was a terrific softball coach at Immaculata Academy for 10 years and is now coaching at Canisius College. Sean coaches youth baseball and hockey in Rochester. Brian is coaching kids baseball in Norfolk, Va.
How many kids will benefit from them because of him? How many former players will pass along what they learned? Thousands.
“They talk about the Belichick football tree and the West Coast offense with Bill Walsh,” Ray Jr. said. “My dad has his own tree with all of its branches. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
Ten years ago, Sean and Ray Sr. joined the same team. They founded Superior Medical Consultants, based in Webster. They recruited Ray Jr., who had been teaching at St. Francis. Erin, who is married to former Sabres forward Andrew Peters, joined them in building the company.
It doesn’t get much better.
For the past decade or so, when Brian was in town to play with Sean in an annual golf tournament in Rochester, Ray and Ray Jr. joined them at Brierwood Country Club for two days of fun. Ray Sr. would sit back and enjoy the show, listening to his boys needle one another like they did when they were kids.
Siblings have a way of recalling every misstep along the way, but what once sounded like noise had turned to music. Golf for them was four hours of inside jokes with nothing off limits because, well, that’s what families do. So you can imagine what was being said on the 11th tee at Brierwood, a par 3 with water on the left.
Ray Sr. was lined up so far right that Brian intervened and corrected him. As the boys stood behind their father, no doubt exchanging glances that communicated all that needed to be said without saying a word, Hennessy flushed a shot that cleared the water, hit the green and landed in the jar.
“It was perfect,” Sean said. “It was perfect.”
By “perfect,” Sean wasn’t describing the shot, even though that was, too. He was talking about an afternoon with his brothers and his father, his partners in life and his best friends for life, about boys being boys and their father being one of them. At that time, at that very moment, their world was, indeed, perfect.
Earlier this week, while they were awaiting the body of their father to be returned from South Carolina, a statement alone that speaks to a cold reality of a funeral Thursday, they grabbed their clubs and headed for the golf course. The ideal foursome had only three players and an empty seat in one of the carts.
And that’s the plan for August.
Yes, they’re going to Pebble Beach. Darned right they’re going. Their father wouldn’t have it any other way, empty seat and all. It’s a lesson they learned from him and will pass down to their own children. What better way to celebrate his life than to honor him in death, knowing his spirit will join them from heaven.
It will be, in a word, perfect.