The bubbling spirit of Michael Hennen and his delightful joy returned to his family's restaurant Sunday afternoon as hundreds of friends gathered for the highly-anticipated announcement of a first-class educational center that will soon be built in his memory.
Predictably, well over half of the projected start-up costs for the Michael P. Hennen Hospitality and Culinary Center have been raised in less than three weeks and Chattanooga State Community College president Jim Catanzaro promised an enthusiastic crowd the center would be built and in operation by this time next year.
At the popular restaurant there were both artist's renderings and blueprints on display and a team from Chattanooga State even collected video interviews with patrons in an attempt to capture Michael's magical appeal to customers. What better educational tool than the memory of so many friends? And Catanzaro gave a lengthy one in his energetic and infectious style.
"I don't know when I've been so thrilled," he laughed with well-wishers. "Rhonda (his wife) and I have been regular customers at Hennen's for a long time and Michael was our favorite. To see so many people here who shared a love for Michael is overwhelming, and to know all of you are stake-holders in the new center means everything to me and our students."
Chattanooga State, which has now grown to over 12,000 students, has working relationships with TVA, Wacker, and Volkswagen but Jon Kinsey, a former mayor who was one of the organizers of the event, reminded the packed-in throng, "The hospitality industry is easily one of Chattanooga's biggest employers. There is no question the Hennen Center will meet a vital need in our community."
Claude Ramsey, a former county mayor who most recently was the state's Lt. Governor, said the new state program that will offer free tuition at community colleges for high school seniors will most certainly push an opportunity for students to learn job skills. "This is a wonderful thing. Chattanooga has needed this badly and just last week VW's announcement to build the new SUV here shows that Chattanooga State graduates are needed for jobs."
"Our tourism numbers are up and the creation of the Hennen Center will definitely meet an eager need by employers through the region," Ramsey said, "and if they turn out anything like Michael we will all be blessed."
Catanzaro said he was unsure what the state's free tuition will mean to Chattanooga State. "It's just happening so we aren't really sure," he said candidly, "but there is no question we have a bigger job market for our students than we have in a long time. We are committed to providing a good education to our students and we are seeing them being hired for good jobs while they still attend classes. That's really gratifying."
Michael Hennen, bright and intensely popular, was 27 when he and a co-worker, beautiful Hannah Barnes, were killed in a tragic train accident three years ago. Yesterday was emotional for many of the family and friends who attended the warm reception but the fact all were there for a distinct purpose made the event memorable. "Never forget, when we invite you out next summer for the official ribbon-cutting, that you helped build this!" Catanzaro demanded with glee.
John Foy, Alexis Bogo, Rob Stickley, and Sherry Pollock were other family friends who served on the organizing committee and, for Stickley, it was a special task. "Michael and I worked here together and grew to be wonderful friends. He was so special and, while he would have laughed if I had told him that one day there would be a college building with his name on it, I am deeply touched that so many of those who loved him are making that a reality. This is special."
His mother, Corinne, assured the standing room crowd that each person there was "Michael's favorite!" While she said it in jest, the fact is Michael made every person believe it to be true and, after the laughter quelled, every person still believed it. That's the magic Michael possessed.
"He was my Godson," said John Foy, "so I know it was me! He was a wonderful person and I am so pleased with the response. I have to tell you I am not surprised. When the idea to build the Hennen Center at Chattanooga State was hatched, I sensed this was a no-brainer. Having seen so much happen in three weeks, I can promise you this will be a rousing success that will keeping giving back to the community for years to come."
The guest list resembled a who's-who of Chattanooga but the happiest people there Sunday were the members of Michael's extended family, who will be eternally blessed that his name as well as his spirit will now live on in the same positive and vibrant way he lived his life. The Michael P. Hennen Hospitality and Culinary Center has now been born -- has it ever.