Roy Exum: My Pal Johnny Hennen

Sunday, March 20, 2016 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum
About 10 days ago, as I sat in the pre-dawn chill like I do each day with my three prayers lists, I took my pencil and crossed my beloved friend Johnny Hennen’s name off the “B” list, and moved it to the “A.” I knew it was time for me to join others in petitioning for God’s grace, for His compassion against the anguish when any great warrior has with the self-realization his end is nigh, and that the Virgin Mary would instead flood Johnny’s thoughts with the joy of his very true and certain Everlasting Life to come. Then I wept.

I don’t often cry when my close friends die, and I didn’t early Friday when word came that Johnny Hennen had crossed the river wide. My mindset instead is that I always focus on the celebration in heaven and the massive reunion beyond the Pearly Gates. Death is temporary, Jesus is eternal, and, brother, that is no sad thing. Not at all.

Can’t you see it? What about Johnny’s face upon his first sight of the rascally Michael, his glorious nephew who died several years back? I can only imagine the two of them squealing with delight as Johnny wrestled Michael on the heavenly grass amid repeated hugs and gales of laughter. Are you kidding me? The two have done that very thing for years at Johnny’s famous Sunday night feasts for all the Hennen family and any tag-alongs. Same song, different verse. Only this time, as only Michael would dare to say, “Add the harps!”

Actually, I have three prayer lists each day. My “A” list is all about grace, reminding the Lord (as though I need to) about how people like Johnny Hennen served with spectacular devotion to his Catholic Church. It is about the delight this Toots Shore-type of character spread at his restaurants like Yesterday’s and Bones, about the love he and wife T.J. displayed to hundreds of younger couples who silently took notes on what a grand marriage should be, the tremendous courage he shared after the kidney transplant, and the children … oh, the children.

Johnny and TJ shared four winners – the two boys, Andrew and Jeffery – will follow the family restaurant tradition when Bone’s BBQ will reopen soon on East Brainerd Road while the girls – Emily and Hannah – are both dazzling, in addition proudly wearing the crown of “Daddy’s girls.” What these four did for their dad – especially during the horrible illness – transfixed Johnny’s closest friends. Wow.

My “B” list is one of hope. Every name on it is a soul that needs help but every name on its still has a chance. Johnny Hennen has been on the “B” so long I’ve have had to rewrite his name twice – in ink -- this since 1995. That’s when Chip Kelly flatly refused to take any odds against his childhood chum while everybody else was thinking Johnny would croak with some strange blood disease.

His kidneys actually up and quit! But his brother-in-law, Mary’s husband Dr. Keith Helton, seemingly preformed the biggest miracle since the two fish and five loaves fed 5,000, and – presto --Johnny never stopped playing racquetball or living life.

In honesty, it wasn’t quite that simple. In 1995, just after he was named as the state’s Co-Amateur Athlete of the year, Hennen was stricken by some strange illness that has a name I can’t spell, much less say, so around the Sunday night grill its nickname was “vasculitis.” Understand, he had won 13 national racquetball titles, playing singles and doubles all over the country, and one can count the state and pro tournaments he dominated.

So along comes this deadly stuff and he spent days in ICU. Finally, he got a transplant and wins the national doubles less than one year later. I’m talking a warrior! A newspaper reporter interviewed him about his phenomenal comeback in Nashville. “It just doesn’t mean that much to me, but what does is, if I could, by playing and winning just give one person hope in overcoming whatever their problem might be, well, maybe that’s why the good Lord kept me around.”

Far bigger was the fact Johnny was ideal for the disease. Really. It ravaged him but, with all of us watching, it couldn’t kill him because Johnny’s heart nor his mantra would never allow it. So help me. This was because when he was born 69 years ago, God gifted him as a child to Bud and Melba Hennen. I knew both well, since I have walked the road with all the Hennen brothers since early high school.

Melba Hennen, in a quiet way, was a humble yet stunning athlete. She could have been on the pro bowling tour, the LPGA, and it was her touch that made each of her children a superb athlete. But it was Bud who supplied the fire. He was a super father, as well as a coach’s coach … which is in a way a sad thing because I know hundreds he could have helped and molded and loved like his own boys.

But give Bud major credit; this is the guy who instilled Johnny’s greatest virtue – his “never quit – keep pluggin’ – we still have an inning left” – and I think that is why Johnny never once cracked during those awful months with the kidney mess and other diseases.

My “C” prayer list is not a laughable thing, like when I pray there is still some ice cream in the refrigerator. No, this is where I ask the Lord to give my friends a nudge. Back when Michael, Tim and Corinne’s son, passed away the entire Hennen family was on my ‘C’ list. I had gathered with them one night before the funeral and I have never been in a crowd that was as totally crushed yet but so vibrantly alive knowing they still had one another. Grief is awful but ‘family is undefeated.’

All of the ‘C’ list is for the good; that friends’ children will get in college, that as we enter this Holy Week many will ignore the media and become Christians. I pray young black men will stop shooting one another, that a refurbished school system will have Saturday school in our iZone areas where kids in poverty can get food -- both cranial and physical -- and that Biblical principles can once again become ‘cool.’ On the ‘C’ list now is a prayer T.J. and the children will not fret over what death took away, but the treasure of what Johnny left behind.

Johnny Hennen was the second of the children. Growing up he idolized Jimmy – the oldest – who played football for Army before going south to play for the Miami Dolphins. Then Tim idolized Johnny, who in fact was just as dazzling in baseball, signing with Auburn right out of Notre Dame as a pitcher who could well go on to the Bigs. Johnny had an idiot of a coach, who in an effort to “toughen up” his baseball team, ordered a football drill that wrecked the shoulder above Johnny’s gifted arm.

Tim and I worked somewhat hysterically at the old Ira Trivers store in Eastgate Mall some 50 years back and between Tim and the youngest, Budweiser icon Denny, mischief has still never left the room. Then the youngest, Mike, was the instigator – because he was the baby he was special and he knew it. His parade of pranks on the others were hysterical. When all the Hennen brothers teamed up to run Yesterday’s in the Patten Parkway – look out! – every night was better than Cheers and each wilder than Caddy Shack.

The “rose” of the bunch, of course, was their sister, Mary, and early on I felt sorry for Keith Helton when they were dating. Can you imagine dating Hoss Cartwright’s sister? Lord, how he did it I’ll never know but when former Baylor football standout David Helton went on to become Duke’s greatest football player ever and win the Campbell Trophy is 2014, chalk it up to the pedigree. (The Campbell is just as big as the Heisman, only with academics thrown in.)

The reason I mention the family is because of all Johnny accomplished, from the dozens of national racquetball titles to the four children he and T.J. raised to be so fine, there was one constant. He did so much in our community, for his church and just as much for his many friends, but Johnny was “family” personified. Seriously, he would threaten any brother or sister who would dare miss the glorious Sunday night cookouts that he and T.J. provided each week but would lavish on any and all who were there.

His life’s balance was perfect – God, Family, me (with a small “m”) – and what he will leave on Monday when “Father Mike” and other adoring priests celebrate Mass and dedicate his soul unto the Lord is best explained by the fact he will have left his indelible laughter and his love in us each and every one.

The Indian proverb wisely tells us, “Good men must die but death cannot kill their names.” No one who knew him will ever forget Johnny Hennen and so it is, that his spirit will live on inside all of us until we, too, hug on that heavenly grass once again.

* * *

The cynic asks, “What if Johnny Hennen, after living such a glorious and totally sins-forgiven life, one where he exhibited such principles and always played by the rules, found out at death that there was no such thing as heaven or Eternal Life?”

The answer? “What if the fool, who falls for any and all temptation before death, and who believes in nothing, finds out in the end that yes there is … and it is too late?”

* * *

Funeral services will be held at noon Monday at the OLPH Catholic Church on North Moore Road. Visitation will begin at 9:30 a.m. in the community hall behind the church before Mass will be celebrated.

Johnny Hennen
Johnny Hennen

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