When Katie Lembo’s prom plans came together late a couple years ago and the former Penfield track standout couldn’t find a limousine, Dave Hennessey volunteered his car and his chauffeuring services. The longtime track and field and cross country coach did it again last spring.
He kept the van that he rented to take runners to the Penn Relays in Philadelphia an extra day — the runners paid for that extra time — and looking spiffy in his tuxedo and white gloves, Hennessey chauffeured five Penfield couples to prom in it.
“It was a lot of fun,” says Cameron MacKenzie, a sophomore on the cross country team. “That’s like the main thing my Dad remembers, that our coach drove us to prom. He brags about him all the time. How most coaches wouldn’t do that.”
Complete series: Coaches Who Care
Hennessey, who certainly goes the extra mile for his runners, is the next winner of the Coaches Who Care award, a joint initiative between the Democrat and Chronicle and Compeer Rochester to recognize top coaches in Section V. The 63-year-old is in his 40th season coaching cross country, indoor track and outdoor track at Penfield, where “Hen” is a legend. With more than 500 victories in boys competitions and close to 500 for girls, the Rush-Henrietta graduate and retired social studies teacher at Victor is recognized as the nation’s dual-meet wins leader in cross country by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
He has coached more than a dozen state champions and All-Americans, but forget about the accolades. The man wants what’s best for his runners.
“They’re my kids,” said Hennessey, who is single and has dedicated his life to the sport.
As for his chauffeuring services, his after-prom presence certainly helped ease the minds of parents and calm his own concerns about his runners “doing something they’re not supposed to,” he said.
“He really pushes us to be our best,” said junior Bradley Farnham, who has run all three seasons for Hennessey since he was in eighth grade. “If we have a bad race, he’ll inform us of what we did wrong but he’s never mean about it. He’ll be like, ‘This is what you can do better.’ He really cares about us individually and as a team.”
Hennessey also founded the His and Her Invitational 37 years ago with Lance Bush and former University of Rochester cross country coach, John Izzo. The outdoor track event for high schools is unique in that it combines the results of girls and boys competitors.
“To have the ability to impact kids over a span of 40 years, sometimes people grow out of that contact piece,” but Hennessey hasn’t, Penfield athletic director Pete Shambo said. “He has a way of challenging these kids that’s unique. It’s funny. In some ways they don’t want to let him down.”
Hennessey, of course, credits his runners for being “self-motivated” and “internally driven.” But that stems from how he prods them.
“I never see him as the guy that’s going, ‘If you don’t this!’ That’s not his personality,” Shambo said about how Hennessey gets the best out of his runners. “I call it the ‘it’ factor with some coaches. Some coaches have it and you know it when you see it. You can’t necessarily put your finger on it, but he has it.”
Hennessey impacts hundreds of kids each year, too. This fall there are 81 boys and girls on his cross country teams. He expects 100 more competitors for indoor track and about 130 for outdoor. There is some crossover, of course, with some kids running multiple seasons, but his reach is widespread and it’s not just at Penfield.
Bush credits Hennessey, who is in Section V’s indoor and outdoor track Halls of Fame, for running a weekly program each summer that’s open to kids from any school and includes runners as young as toddlers. And if you think running is too individualistic, think again.
MacKenzie said her coach is keen on the “pack” mentality for his squads, meaning runners should push each other. “You need to make sure (teammates) are thinking positively, not just yourself,” she said. “And if they’re not (he wants us to) help them feel their best.”
Hennessey, who says former R-H coach Gary Thompson got him involved in running later in high school, said he has always enjoyed being able to help kids grow athletically and away from the sport, too, so they “mature as individuals.” Since retiring from teaching several years ago, he routinely gets asked how much longer he’ll coach.
“I’ve told my fellow teachers and retirees … it’s kind of nice (now),” he said. “I get my kid fix and I don’t have to grade essays anymore.”
Complete series: Coaches Who Care
About the award
The Coaches Who Care Award recognizes individuals who’ve shown a commitment to players that goes beyond only developing a winning team. Eligible coaches must work at local high schools at the modified, junior-varsity or varsity level. E-mail nominations to JDIVERON@Gannett.com. Please cite specific examples in your nomination. The coach of the year will be honored at the Oct. 29 Compeer Luncheon in Rochester. This year’s special guest is Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback, Jim Kelly.