Hennessy Influences Decision-Making

March 31, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Even though she isn’t the first Democratic female to be elected to the Kent County Board of Commissioners, Carol Hennessy remains a member of a rather elite group. Recent memory only has Agnes Kempker and Katherine Kuhn, who later became a Republican, preceding her to the commission’s table as Democrats.

Voters in the 14th District — which is mostly the west side of Grand Rapids, although a portion crosses over to the east side — put Hennessy into office in 2006. And that is where she wants to be, because she feels the county post places her as close as she can get to filling the needs and desires of her constituents.

“We talk about funding for government at the federal level and the state level, but really the services all have to be delivered at the local level. This is the basic level of service delivery to the individual, to the family and to the small business person,” she said.

Hennessy recently passed the halfway mark of her first two-year term, and the Business Journal asked her if the experience has been what she thought it would be when she was going door-to-door throughout the district as a hopeful candidate.

“That’s actually a hard one (to answer) because it’s obviously different once you’re there sitting at the table than what you project it’s going to be. But does that make it bad? No, it makes it different,” she said.

“I don’t think I fully appreciated how much of the discussion takes place at the committee level,” said Hennessy, who serves on the Legislative Committee.


Name: Carol Hennessy

Organization: KentCountyBoard of Commissioners

Title: Commissioner, 14th District

Age: 58

Birthplace: Pontiac

Residence: Grand Rapids

Family: Husband,Ken Nysson; children Jacob, Elizabeth and Jon

Business/community organizations: John Ball Park Community Association, Clinica Santa Maria, West Grand Rapids Planning Commission, New Development Corp., La Leche League, Healthy Kent 2010 and Holy Spirit Roman Catholic Church.

Biggest career break: Getting a job at a daily newspaper after earning her journalism degree at MichiganStateUniversity.

“When you get to the full board meeting, people are, more or less, consolidating and expressing their own opinion, but the give-and-take takes place at the committee level … and it has taken me some time to adjust and get into the rhythm of that.”

But being a commissioner isn’t totally foreign to her. Her first job after graduating with a journalism degree from Michigan State University was covering government as a reporter for a daily newspaper in Monroe. She said that job gave her a keen insight into the public sector and taught her how to ask the right questions, a skill that she feels still serves her well today.

“It was a professional fulfillment. It’s from the work I did there that I really gained an appreciation for how government can serve as a positive force in our lives. And after going from meeting to meeting to meeting, I could also see how individuals and small groups can influence decision-making,” she said.

“You can fight City Hall, and I’ve always rebelled against the idea that you can’t, because over and over I’ve seen how people can work individually and together to highlight things that need to be highlighted and influence decisions.”

Hennessy and her husband, Ken Nysson, will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in September. They met while he was working at the Monroe County Health Department and she was reporting on what he and the department did.

Did anything click right away for her the first time they met?

“No,” she said, laughing.

But something did click later, as they dated for about a year before getting married on what she said was “the last day of trout season” in 1978. She knew her wedding day shared an important spot on the calendar then because Nysson is an outdoorsman who hunts game birds with his two wire-haired griffons and is an avid fly fisherman. Today, they have three grown children: Jacob, Elizabeth and Jon, who range in age from 22 to 27, with Jacob being the oldest and Jon the youngest.

“My kids are at great ages. I look at the future for them and see their lives will be full of challenges, but there are lots of opportunities too,” she said.

Nysson is director of strategic planning and governmental affairs for Metro Hospital. He and Hennessy also own a consulting firm called Ken Nysson and Associates that helps providers with certificate-of-need requests for services or buildings, something she has done for years. They’ve had the business since 1983.

“When the kids were little, and when he came home at 5 o’clock on a Friday, I went upstairs to work on my Macintosh and wouldn’t resurface until Sunday night,” she said.

Hennessy was born in Pontiac, but she was raised on the west side of Detroit. When Nysson took a job with the Kent County Health Department in March 1979, they moved to the west side of Grand Rapids.

“So I’ve been a west-sider all of my life,” she said.

While her husband hunts and fishes in his spare time, Hennessy somewhat reluctantly admitted that she fills her free time by going to meetings.

“I go to meetings all the time. I believe I kind of like it. That’s terrible. Like this week, I went to the zoo advisory board meeting because I had the time,” she said.

“I also love photography. I’m a great picture taker. I don’t do much with them, but I like photography.”

Going to a lot of meetings reflects the fact that Hennessy has spent a lot of her time as a volunteer in the community. She served for a long time on the John Ball Park Community Association, and she teaches expectant mothers the proper way to breastfeed at Clinica Santa Maria.

She also heads the West Grand Rapids Planning Commission, which is made up of the district’s three neighborhood associations and business groups, and she serves on the Breastfeeding Task Force with Healthy Kent 2010.

Hennessy is secretary for New Development Corp., a nonprofit organization that “perks up” homes in the city’s northwest- and northeast-side neighborhoods to provide more opportunities for home ownership. She also leads a local La Leche League group, a breastfeeding support group for new mothers and mothers-to-be. It’s something she has done for roughly two decades and hasn’t tired of doing.

“The organization was founded in 1955 by seven moms at a picnic. What I think is fascinating is all seven women remain involved in the organization 53 years later. It’s just amazing. I think one is in assisted living, but they’re all still involved,” she said.

Hennessy knows what she will be doing this weekend — attending another meeting, this time the state conference of the La Leche League. She also pretty much knows what she will be doing for most of this year, at least leading up to the November election.

“It’s going to be running for office, and that really does take up a lot of time. And I love it. I love going door-to-door. … I love getting out and meeting people. I’ll do it for several hours every single day for months and months,” she said.

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