Longtime California Labor Leader and SMC Alumnus Jack Henning Dies at Age 93

Jack Henning '38.Jack Henning '38, former undersecretary of labor for presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and a longtime labor activist who led the California Labor Federation for 26 years, died June 4 at his home in San Francisco. He was 93.

Mr. Henning was at the forefront of labor issues since he graduated from Saint Mary's in 1938 and worked with the Association of Catholic Unionists in San Francisco. He also joined the United Federal Workers of the CIO and was a member of the boilermakers in San Francisco.

He was named director of California's Department of Industrial Relations in 1959, and helped Kennedy in his presidential campaign, which led to his appointment as undersecretary of labor, his son, Dan Henning '76, said. Jack Henning remained undersecretary of labor under Johnson, who later appointed him ambassador to New Zealand.

Mr. Henning returned to San Francisco with his family of seven children when President Richard Nixon took office in 1969. From 1970 to 1996, he led the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO as its executive secretary-treasurer.

"He had a distinguished career as a public servant and a keen interest in promoting social justice," Brother President Ronald Gallagher said. "We are very proud of his many associations with Saint Mary's College."

Said Senator Ted Kennedy, "Jack Henning was an extraordinary and lifelong leader in the ongoing battle for workers' rights. He dedicated his life to bringing about a better America for working men and women. We will miss his eloquent and passionate voice for economic progress, civil rights, safety in the workplace, and fairness and dignity for all workers, and on every other issue affecting social justice in America. I know how much President Kennedy valued Jack's wise counsel in the years of the New Frontier, and he'll always be remembered as one of the true giants of the American labor movement."

"Jack was a lion of a man and a great labor leader," said Art Pulaski, current executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation. "His vision and his magnificent oratory inspired several generations of union activists."

Dan Henning said his father developed those oratorical skills at Saint Mary's under the legendary Brother Z. Leo, who could pack amphitheaters and opera houses for his speeches.

"My dad credits the Christian Brothers for all the abilities he had. The ability to learn public speaking from Brother Leo enabled my father to get all those distinguished jobs," Dan Henning said.

Jack Henning, who received his degree in English literature, learned far more than oratory at Saint Mary's. He also became active in the Catholic labor movement that was underway in the 1930s and which the late professor James Hagerty was involved in. During his years at Saint Mary's, Henning was also the personal secretary to Slip Madigan, the famed football coach who brought the Gaels national attention for its tremendous gridiron play.

Interested in sports, Henning later recruited the great basketball player Tom Meschery '61 to Saint Mary's. Meschery later played 10 seasons in the NBA and is in the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame.

"I think Jack Henning was probably the principal closer in recruiting," Meschery said. "He was maybe the most prominent of the Saint Mary's alumni who helped the Athletic Department in recruiting. He's responsible for me going to Saint Mary's because he made such a lasting impression on my mother.

"I think he had a very deep, abiding love of the college and considered himself available to help them every way he could. He was an open-hearted, generous man," Meschery continued.

Mr. Henning's family connections to Saint Mary's go back to the College's earliest days in San Francisco in the 1860s, when his great-grandfather graduated, Dan Henning said. Three of Mr. Henning's sons, John Jr. '62, Dan and Tom '77, graduated from SMC.

Randy Andrada '73 said Mr. Henning's commitment to social justice and labor stemmed from the traditions of the Christian Brothers and the Catholic view of the dignity of man and the dignity of work.

"He understood the Great Books. He understood that philosophy and the ethics had to be lived in the day-to-day, rough-and-tumble world that we all deal with," Andrada said.

That included his support, as head of California's AFL-CIO, of the United Farm Workers. Mr. Henning campaigned to pass the groundbreaking Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975. The labor federation also credited Mr. Henning for leading the campaign to restore Cal-OSHA in 1988 and reforming the state worker's compensation system. When he was a University of California regent, Mr. Henning fought to divest UC's holdings in South Africa under apartheid.

"His commitment to global unionism and anti-racism were ahead of his time, and he never hid from a good fight," Pulaski said. "He led the labor movement at times of great growth and opportunity, and through challenging times as well. There will be a silence where his voice once was heard, and he will be dearly missed."

Saint Mary's College is home to the John F. Henning Institute, which directs its efforts to Catholic social thought, and promotes discourse between scholars and practitioners in labor relations, business, science and technology, the arts, the communications media, higher education and other areas. It was established in 1997.

Ernest Pierucci '72, who proposed the institute, said Mr. Henning's stature warranted it.

"He's a man who in the public sphere represented probably the best of Saint Mary's and the best of Catholic social teaching."

Pierucci said Mr. Henning was very personable.

"Every time I talked to Jack, I learned something new. Jack was one of the most extraordinary storytellers I ever met. It was like a combination of a politician and an Irish bard."

There is also a John F. Henning Center for International Labor Relations at UC Berkeley, established in 1999, which promotes the study of labor in the global economy, builds relationships among international labor activists and scholars, and conducts policy research on the impact of the global economy on Californians.

Mr. Henning was a proud Irish American, helping establish an Irish history course at Saint Mary's. He co-founded the Irish Literary and Historical Society in 1945, and advocated for the release of Irish political prisoners and the end of British rule in Northern Ireland. He was grand marshal of San Francisco's 150th Anniversary Saint Patrick's Parade.

Mr. Henning was a former member of the Board of Trustees of Saint Mary's, and a former regent of the University of California and Lone Mountain College. He received honorary doctorates from Saint Mary's, St. Anselm's College in New Hampshire and St. Bonaventure University in New York, and was the 1986 recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. He is also a past executive director of the California Catholic Conference.

Mr. Henning's wife, Marguerite, died in 1994. Mr. Henning is survived by his children, John Jr., Brian, Patrick, Nancy, Daniel, Thomas and Mary, as well as 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Friends are welcome for Visitation on Thursday, June 11, from 2-4 p.m., at McAvoy O'Hara Evergreen Mortuary (Geary Boulevard at 10th Avenue); the Rosary will be recited at 4 p.m. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated on Friday, June 12, at 1:30 p.m. at The Cathedral of St. Mary, 1111 Gough Street (at Geary). Interment will be conducted at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma on Saturday, June 13, at 11 a.m. McAvoy-O'Hara Co. (415) 668-0077

-- Erin Hallissy
Office of College Communications

Read the San Francisco Chronicle obituary