Bringing luminaries to the locals
As the founder of Foothill College's Celebrity Forum Speaker Series, Dick Henning has hobnobbed with everyone from movie legend Cary Grant to the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. But it's the education he had received growing up in Taft, Calif., a rustic yet wealthy oil town west of Bakersfield, that served as early inspiration for his own long career of educational and community service.
It "formed the foundation of where I am today," Henning said. "I appreciate it more and more."
Henning worked summers in the Taft-area oil fields before earning a "teeny" boxing scholarship to San Jose State University. He eventually completed two master's degrees and a doctorate in education administration.
After working seven years as a high school English and speech teacher in Sunnyvale, Henning said he "jumped" at the chance in 1967 to apply for the job of Foothill College's director of student services.
At the time, the college was struggling with dwindling interest in its student-services card. Job seeker Henning proposed a bold idea: To make the card more valuable, he suggested creating a series of compelling cultural events open to card holders. The $20 card would have a more than $400 value. It was a big goal, and one that Henning figured he would not get the chance to deliver on.
"There were more than 100 applicants. I knew I wasn't going to get the job," he laughed.
To his surprise, "I got a call the next day that says, 'You're hired.'"
Henning made good on his idea, and the Celebrity Forum was born. Luminaries such as archaeologist Louis Leakey and broadcaster Alistair Cooke were among the first to take the stage.
And though Los Altos Hills may not be known as a hipster haven, during Henning's early tenure many seminal rock bands also visited Foothill College.
Acts including The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and The Fifth Dimension performed.
"The Doobie Brothers were a nice group. It was an incredible job," Henning said.
But it wasn't all peace, love and feeling groovy.
"People forget, it was rough times," Henning said of the turbulent years between 1968 and 1970, which saw student demonstrations and a campus-wide shutdown in 1970. But Henning remained with the college (he retired in 1997) and his beloved forum, which outgrew its space at the college and now takes place at the Flint Center in Cupertino. The wildly successful series, which features seven speakers a year, is now self-supported by ticket sales (admission costs $290-390 per year). It routinely sells out.
"The series is now in its 43rd year. I don't see it weakening; it's a real service, a free exchange of active ideas. I think it's here to stay," he said.
Henning is particularly proud to have had Cary Grant as a speaker in 1978, as the shy actor had never done a public-speaking event of its kind before. Henning's also brought every president from Gerald Ford to Bill Clinton to the series.
One speaker he would love to get that he hasn't yet? Nelson Mandela.
Henning has also served on the boards for United Way of Santa Clara County, Los Altos Sister Cities and the Los Altos Chamber of Commerce. He's done years of volunteer work with the Rotary Club of Los Altos, with which he has delivered wheelchairs in five countries and cleaned up beaches, among other activities.
With Rotary, there are "tangible results. You could see how grateful someone was to get a wheelchair. It is so rewarding."
An achievement for which Henning takes pride was bringing the first woman into the club, in 1978.
"What a difference women have made," he said.
Henning lives in Mountain View, near the Los Altos border (in 1996 he was named "Los Altan of the Year" for his community contributions) with his wife, Paulette. Between them he and Paulette have three grown children and five grandkids. The Hennings also currently share their home with a cat, Tucka.
"It's my wife's favorite thing in all the world," he said. "I have to admit, it's a pretty good cat."
Though he's now 76, Henning has no plans to stop his community work.
"You've got to stay active, mind and body. Plus my wife loves it when I leave the house," he joked.
"It's so interesting, so much fun," he said of his continuing involvement with the speaker series.
"They can wheel me out in a chair as long as I can still talk."