Remembering John Dennis (Dr. D)

Oct. 21, 1948 - Feb. 9, 2008

By Thomas Brown, Former Dean of Advising Services & Special Programs
Photography by Zack Farmer '08

John D had everything going for him: a first-rate education from the finest schools, financial security and a whole world of possibilities in front of him. With his background, he could have gone anywhere he wanted, done anything he wanted. Instead, he chose to commit his life to teaching students who otherwise would have been denied access to the opportunities a good education provides.

John was always deeply committed to improving the lives of his students, even when others could not see their potential. He earnestly believed that his own salvation was tied to the work he did to transform the lives of the countless students he taught, motivated and mentored through the years. John gave himself completely to teaching, and his students reflected his work, his love and his faith in the learning they achieved and the lives they led.

This tribute celebrates Dr. John Dennis, who taught history, Collegiate Seminar and, above all, the students of Saint Mary’s College. However, the “John D” referred to above is Saint John Baptist de La Salle, whose life and work are at the very heart of Saint Mary’s educational mission and vision. It is my view that John Dennis’ life journey parallels the life of the Founder.

Professor Dennis earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from Stanford University. For many educators, especially educators of color, a Stanford doctorate is the key that opens a multitude of doors. However, John used his education not to advance himself but to help others achieve their dreams and reach their highest potential.

In a time when “success” is too often measured in material terms — the car a person drives, the size of one’s house or the designer labels in their clothes — Dr. Dennis understood that true riches come from committing one’s life in service to others.

In addition to his work at Saint Mary’s, John taught at Edward Shans Adult School in east Oakland, where he provided support and encouragement to countless people who returned to school to continue educations interrupted by the vagaries of life. John was also an adjunct faculty member at City College of San Francisco. Weekends often found him teaching and ministering in Bay Area jails and prisons. However, it was Dr. D’s work with the SMC High Potential Program (HP) that was a source of great joy for him, and brought him much love, admiration and appreciation.

Dr. D often spent morning ‘til night working with students in the HP summer bridge program. Rafael Ayala, a 2002 HP graduate who is a counselor at San Francisco’s Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep, remembered, “Dr. D brought together a group of kids who didn’t look like each other. He broke down stereotypes and helped us to understand our common experiences and our common bonds.”

By summer’s end, HP students had begun to actualize a central element of the Lasallian vision set forth in the 1967 Declaration of the Christian Brothers in the World Today, as they became, “living communities where young people from different backgrounds educated one another, sought to understand and respect one another.”

Tributes to Dr. D came from Alaska to New York and from western Australia to South Africa as his former students recalled the powerful impact he had on their lives. Dr. Brian Stanley recalled Dr. D as a demanding teacher who challenged and supported students to achieve their full potential. Qiana Hill Ross remembered his loving and affirming words, written in the margins of a long-ago essay, that his students were also his teachers. Frank Knight, a former Gael basketball standout and HP alum, teaches and coaches at his former high school in Oakland, having earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from SMC. Knight always thought he would have time to thank Dr. D for all he had done for him, and encouraged fellow alums to thank the teachers, coaches and others who helped them on their Saint Mary’s journeys.

John would not allow others to define what success meant because he understood that while it is easy to make a dollar, it is hard to make a difference. Dr. D was a deeply committed Catholic Christian who not only talked the Gospel talk, he walked the Gospel walk in service of others.

Esther Lopez, a longtime SMC admissions officer and now head counselor at Justin Siena High School, observed, “The outpouring of love and gratitude for Dr. D was a living testament to the God that he saw in all of his students.” She added, “John Dennis cherished his work and found guidance and inspiration from Jesus Christ and De La Salle.”

A smile comes to my face as I imagine Dr. D arriving at Heaven’s Gate, wearing his most purple of purple suits. A crowd greets John with a rousing ovation as he has come home much sooner than anyone expected.

Gathered at the gate are Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, W.E.B. DuBois and Cesar Chavez. Also there are Dr. Ben Frankel, Sister Clare Wagstaffe, Brother DeSales Perez and legions of others who taught at Saint Mary’s. With these teachers are Jessica Ortiz and Dino Zarate, HP students John taught, mentored and inspired before their own too-early deaths.

I imagine Dr. D smiling humbly as the applause reaches a crescendo. Saint John Baptist de La Salle then steps forward from the crowd to welcome home another John D. De La Salle offers words that all who knew Dr. D might say, “Well done, John Dennis, well done … Now, receive blessings greater than those you bestowed on others throughout your life, and rest the rest you have earned … for all eternity.”