Little did Eugene Hennessy '25 know that, as he pumped gas at a Shell Oil service station in the late 1920s, he was launching a career that would last into his late nineties, involve the Federal Energy Administration, support his family and ultimately benefit his alma mater. Yet his story began much earlier.
Hennessy, who grew up in East St. Louis, had two brothers and one sister. Tragically, his father was killed in an accident when Eugene was 12, and his mother died shortly after. Orphaned, he went to live with his aunt and uncle in St. Louis.
“He could not afford to go to SLUH, but the Jesuits kindly gave him an incredible education,” says Sheila Cleaves, Hennessy’s daughter and only child. “He was always grateful for that.” Cleaves remembers her father talking about the variety of courses and what a wonderful opportunity SLUH provided him. “He loved being there.”
According to Cleaves, her father graduated from SLUH early at age 16 and went straight to work because he could not afford college. He began fueling cars at a gas station, something he later explained that “everybody did” as it provided a steady income.
His integrity and strong work ethic did not go unnoticed. He soon moved into a marketing position, was promoted to district manager for St. Louis, and in 1944 was assigned to metropolitan New York to head Shell’s marketing efforts for their branded fuel oil business east of the Rocky Mountains.
Following a successful 40-year career with Shell, Hennessy became vice president and general manager for petroleum business development at Chemical Tankers, a chemical transport company. Then, in 1974, he began an eight-and-a-half-year stint with the Federal Energy Administration.
“During the oil crisis, he was in charge of the oil district in New York and people tried to bribe him, but he had integrity and was totally incorruptible,” says Cleaves. “He was grounded with moral values and a very determined individual.”
Following his FEA stint, Hennessy continued his career in New York in the fuel and energy industry. Remarkably, he was still working until his death in 2007. He was 99. According to Cleaves, her father – as a nonagenarian – traveled by bus to Grand Central Station, where he took a subway and then walked to work.
He told colleagues at the New York Mercantile Exchange, his last employer, “Work is particularly good for me. I dream as much today about ways to get things done as I did years ago. I have so much fun, I just eat it up.”
“I learned a lot from my father,” says Cleaves. “He went to Mass regularly before work and served as an usher. He had so many friends of all ages and was an amazing husband, father and a real gentleman.”
She adds that he took education very seriously. It is a legacy that he passed along to Sheila, who attended school in New York, as well as her family. Today his generous legacy also benefits Jr. Bills through the Hennessy Family Scholarship, which he established in 1998 to ensure the gift of a quality education to qualified students – just as he received nearly a century ago.
Representing her family, including her husband, their three children and spouses, and a total of 21 grand- and great-grandchildren, Cleaves says, “We are so appreciative to SLUH for the gift of an education from the Jesuits all those many years ago.”
DID YOU KNOW?
The generosity of George and Anna Backer provided SLUH with essential support for many years, but the school has long since outgrown the ability of the Backer gift alone to sustain itself. The needs of our students, faculty and curriculum have grown and evolved, while the demand for financial assistance has risen significantly.
Today SLUH relies on tuition and the support of alumni, parents and benefactors to meet its annual operating needs. The endowment, which has been carefully managed by school leadership and the Board of Trustees over the years, lags behind that of many peer Jesuit and independent schools. With a net value of approximately $43 million, it allows for an annual draw of less than $2,500 per student.
The Board has prioritized growing the endowment as a top strategic priority to ensure SLUH’s legacy of needs-blind admission and uncapped financial aid. Scholarships like the Hennessy Family Scholarship help the school build its endowment to better meet today’s needs while leveraging the impact of annual fundraising in the future.
Planned giving provides many options to support SLUH’s endowment.
For more information, visit: www.sluh.org/giving