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On a quiet morning in September of 2014, Dennis Kennedy rose early, donned a Speedo and a wet suit, and dove into the bone-chilling waters of the San Francisco Bay. He was joined by dozens of other adventurous souls in the annual Alcatraz Invitational Swim. Together, they defied choppy waves and a gnarly cross-current to finish the grueling 1.25 mile swim. Afterward, Kennedy stood alongside five other top finishers in the winner’s circle, exhausted yet elated. But why would he put himself through such an ordeal? For start- ers, he’s a lifelong athlete with a passion for water sports. He is a septuagenarian… so maybe Alcatraz was on his bucket list. But on a deeper level, the Alcatraz swim is a kind of metaphor for his life. Those who know the former IBM engineer turned mayor, board-level executive and community leader say he is a man of vision, ready to tackle big challenges for the greater good of the community. It will take more than a magazine article to do justice to the storied career of Dennis Kennedy and his contribution to the South County, but it’s a place to start. Young Life Kennedy was born in 1938 in Omaha, Nebraska. His family moved to San Jose’s Willow Glen area while Kennedy was a young boy and his father worked for Union Pacific Railroad. He recalls his father’s optimism about the wealth of opportunities to build a good life in California. “My dad showed us around Santa Clara Valley, including a tour of the Stanford and Santa Clara University campuses,” Kennedy said. “He and my mother clearly wanted my brothers Jack, Jim and me to get a good education. I still marvel at how well my dad provided for us on his modest salary.” Kennedy earned a partial scholarship to attend Bellarmine College Prep, a school he applauds for emphasizing a balance of academics, sports and community service. From there he went on to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering at Santa Clara University. “By the mid to late 1950s, space exploration was headline news. The Russians had put a man in space and the U.S. was hot on their heels. I enjoyed studying subjects related to aircraft and rocket technologies, which served me well throughout my career.” While at Santa Clara University, Kennedy joined the ROTC, which provided his introduction to military service and a scholarship to help with tuition. He spent his summers working in San Jose’s canneries lugging produce-laden crates between conveyors and box cars. “My brother Jack sold me on the job.” Laughing at the memory, Kennedy added, “I was a little on the skinny side. Jack assured me that all the heavy lifting would help me beef up for football season.” The strategy worked. Playing football provided the perfect outlet for Kennedy’s competitive nature. Recalling his school years, Kennedy said he naturally gravitated to leadership roles and drew inspiration from being in the company of some rather impressive fellow students. “I went to school with John Sobrato, Leon Panetta, Tom Hastings, Jerry Brown and many others who went on to distinguished careers in business and public service.” From Aerospace to Army and Back As an early 1960s college grad with an engineering degree, Kennedy quickly landed a job at Aerojet General in Sacramento. He served as an aerospace test engineer and worked on a team supporting one of the first manned space vehicles in the Gemini space program, which laid important groundwork for the Apollo mission. “It was incredibly exciting being in the bunker, waiting through the countdown and witnessing the successful testing of those rocket engines.” Eight months into his career, Kennedy was called by the Army into active duty at bases in Texas, California and Germany. He was promoted to First Lieutenant in the Air Defense division in less than two years. When the Army offered Kennedy a promotion to Captain, he opted instead to return to civilian life and his engineering career. As fate would have it, his return coin- cided with an industry shift away from G M H T O D A Y M A G A Z I N E MARCH / APRIL 2015 space exploration that resulted in layoffs at Aerojet. Undaunted, Kennedy returned to San Jose and parlayed his engineering know- how into a job with IBM in the late 1960s. The IBM Years He found a perfect fit for his engineering background in IBM’s Facilities Engineering and Management Division. It wasn’t long before he was appointed to chair a special committee focused on advancing “clean room” design, a hot button in electronics manufacturing at that time. “IBM was constantly innovating, pushing the envelope to support bar code recognition, disk storage and other technologies. But the clean room processes to manufacture these technologies are heavily dependent on the use of ultra-pure water, which is very expensive. My job was to help IBM develop a sustainable system of clean water to serve this purpose.” Kennedy married his high school sweetheart, Therese, in 1967 and their son Matthew was born in 1971. Therese suffered from multiple sclerosis, but she battled the crippling disease, defying medical prognoses before she passed away more than 30 years later. During those years, Kennedy and his son grew closer, working together to comfort and support Therese in managing her disease. Today, father and son carve out time to travel together, whether it’s a day trip by train to Sacramento, or a visit to Mizuho, Japan, which is a Sister City of Morgan Hill. For Matthew the qualities that stand out the most in his dad are “his sense of altruism, his perseverance through tough times, and the strength of his faith.” Reaching a Turning Point Kennedy gained a breadth of engineering expertise at IBM, but after 25 years there, he was restless, so he decided to explore new career opportunities where he could affect change. He also took his boss’s advice and added new skills to his professional toolbox. gmhtoday.com 73