Sept. 17, 2010
SEATTLE - On a late night in March of 2009, three Washington coaches huddled around a table at the Oxford University Club in England with their guest, letting the conversation flow. Despite the historic setting, nothing about the discussion was particularly deep; the group mostly talked sports. But it was one of those moments that men's crew coach Michael Callahan could recall the extraordinary ability Randolf "Ran" Hennes had for storytelling.
The man, Callahan said, wove such enthralling tales that you hung on every word. On Sept. 13, Hennes passed away at Virginia Mason hospital after a lengthy bout with lymphoma. For a personality who had invested so much time with students from all walks of life at Washington, his death was a difficult moment for many to accept. He was a friend, a mentor and a sounding board to many in the UW community.
Hennes, a Seattle native and veteran of the Korean War, was a long-time administrator for the honors program at Washington, but for many he was best known for his legendary skills as a lecturer. He had an accomplished orator's ability to turn an hour lecture on military history, a subject that deeply interested him, into a campfire tale.
"Hands down the best professor I had in my four years at UW," said former rower Kiel Petersen in an email. "Very sad news."
Huskies quarterback Jake Locker - who is majoring in history - had particularly fond remembrances of Hennes. Locker was a student in two of Hennes' lectures - JFK's assassination and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He also worked on independent study projects with the lecturer.
"He was very supportive of Husky athletics," Locker said. "He was just always happy. In class, he was always able to make people laugh. He really knew what he was talking about and he was respected by everyone in his classes. If you talk to anyone across the board here, they would say they respected who he was."
Hennes' death hit the Honors Department staff especially hard. Associate director Julie Villegas likened Hennes to an hourglass in today's fast-paced digital world. When you sat down and had coffee with Hennes, time slowed. He took an interest in your life. She was saddened by the fact that Hennes would no longer be able to pop his head into her office and provide an escape to a busy work schedule.
"We're all so busy here, but yet when you talked to Ran he was so much about you," Villegas said. "He made you slow down. The conversation was here and now. He was a very good person."
After returning home from Korea, Hennes worked towards his Ph.D. at Washington. Then he took off for the Midwest, where he taught at Wayne State University in Detroit. It wasn't until 1972 when Hennes returned to Seattle for good, having accepted a position as an administrator for the Honors Program, where his main responsibilities were to recruit and mentor advanced students. He also taught classes because it was something he loved to do.
In an interview with the UW Daily, Hennes explained his passion for military history. He felt that war brought a country together like nothing else.
"A nation in war is sort of like a balloon that you blow up," Hennes said in the article. "All those little weaknesses in the skin or any imperfections, you blow it up and it gets distorted and may rupture."
For all his connections around campus, Hennes had a particular affinity for the rowing program. He competed on the crew team during the early 1950s, but admittedly was never one of the team's top oarsmen. Yet the sport still captivated him. Hennes was a familiar sight around Conibear Shellhouse for years, and Callahan spent a handful of mornings on Lake Washington with him on the coach's launch. The two would discuss the team dynamic, who was standing out, and who needed a kick in the pants, along with other intricacies of rowing. During home races, Hennes would watch from his traditional spot near the totem poles along the Montlake Cut. Then he would head to Callahan's office to break down how everything went.
When the Washington men's crew program accepted an invitation to race the prestigious Oxford Dark Blues on the River Thames in 2009, Hennes accompanied the team to England. Because the trip came during the winter quarter, Hennes taught a for-credit class to the oarsmen selected for the international dual. But there was no classroom or rote memorization of facts involved. Hennes instead led the rowers through the Oxford campus, discussing England's role in the World Wars and the military philosophy of Winston Churchill. The assigned paper? Write how the United States should react if Seattle were ever besieged by foreign military aggression.
Hennes wanted to make academics fun and interesting for students because he felt UW's classes were the lifeblood of the university. It was a rare opportunity, he felt, for an athlete to participate in both Division I sports and embrace a high level of academia.
There will be a memorial service for Hennes on Oct. 3 at the Center for Urban Horticulture in Laurelhurst at 1 p.m.