Birthday caskets and Ficus campaigns: Remembering Jim ‘Hambone’ Hennessey of Morristown

jim hennessey
Jim Hennessey of Hennessey's Washington Bar, at 2010 dedication of plaque honoring Irish soldiers who served at Jockey Hollow during the Revolution. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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By Marion Filler

The Irish would say he had a way with him.

Jim “Hambone” Hennessey, an inimitable raconteur and amateur historian who for decades held forth from behind the coffee pot at Hennessey’s Washington Bar, a cornerstone of the Irish-American community in Morristown, died at home on Friday at the age of 85.  He had been battling cancer.

Voted Class Clown at Morristown High (’53), he thought seriously about the priesthood before heading to Louisiana to teach poor black children during the Civil Rights era. Hennessey returned to Morristown to work with youths in the juvenile justice system.

Hennessey's in Morristown is changing hands after 30 years.
Hennessey’s in Morristown, now The End of Elm.

Yet many locals will remember him for the Hambone hijinx in his Morris Street bar, a place lined with photos of Irish folk heroes and Brooklyn Dodgers, where he celebrated his 50th birthday in a casket, and hosted the Congressional campaign of a ficus plant.

Former classmate Jack Gutjahr said it’s a shame the pandemic will prevent a proper funeral for Hennessey.

“Many hundreds would have gone to the wake, if not thousands,” he said. “He was one of the icons of Morristown.”

‘WHAT MATTERS IS LAUGHING…WITH PEOPLE YOU LOVE’

The youngest of four children, Hennessey grew up at 102 Western Ave. He was born during the Great Depression and his family, like so many others, struggled.

“The first 10 years of his life were hard,” said his son, Matthew Hennessey, a journalist at the Wall Street Journal.

Those early experiences, and losses during his adolescence of people he knew in the Korean War, would shape his personality, the son said.

“My dad would have said that work or making money, none of it really mattered in the end. What matters is laughing and being with people you love and having a good time.”

Carol Buck and Jim Hennessey dance to the music of Dicey Riley at Hennessey’s Washington Pub in May 2012. Photo by Willie Quinn .

Kenneth MacKenzie, now a retired judge, lived down the street at 49 Western Ave. Hennessey had to pass his house on the way to Maple Avenue Elementary School. From the 3rd grade on, the two boys walked to school together, with Jim often dressed in hand-me-down clothing with cardboard in his shoes.

Jim ‘Hambone’ Hennessey, Morristown High School Class of 1953.

Built in 1869, their school now is a parking deck. But the place already was old when Hennessey and MacKenzie were pupils.

“We went to a school that didn’t have a blade of grass,” said MacKenzie.

Sports were a lifeline in many ways. But since there was no playing field (nor an auditorium or gymnasium), away games had to suffice for the aspiring young baseball players.

Gutjahr, who pitched and played first base for the George Washington Elementary School, recalls playing against Hennessey, who led the batting order and played shortstop for Maple Avenue.

Although Hennessey loved the Brooklyn Dodgers, football became his sport at Morristown High School, where he was better known for humor — as “Hambone” — than for academics.

Jim Hennessey with Kathleen Ginty Hyland at of Ginty’s Irish Gifts, May 2015. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Another contemporary, former Morris Township Mayor Kathleen Ginty Hyland, remembered Hennessey as handsome, athletic, and popular. A page from the Cobbonian yearbook of 1953 confirms her opinion.

“He was a fan favorite,” said Judge Mackenzie. “When they put him in, the crowd would chant ‘Hambone, Hambone.’ They loved him.”

‘Hamboning’ it up: Jim Hennessey, from his yearbook.

A great storyteller, Hennessey was naturally funny, MacKenzie said. The jokes weren’t memorized; they were amusing stories based on his life.

After graduating from Seton Hall University in 1958, Hennessey spent two years in the Army and took a trip around the world after his enlistment was up. Upon returning to Morristown, he considered the priesthood as a career.

Instead, he followed his instinct to help young people by joining a church mission to teach in elementary schools for black children in Louisiana. He met his wife Ann, also a teacher, in the New Orleans airport bar.

They became active in the Civil Rights movement and married in 1966, returning three years later to Morristown, where their four children were born.

Hennessey’s desire to help young people led him become a Morris County probation officer assigned to the juvenile unit.

According to Judge MacKenzie, who presided over Juvenile Court at the time, Hennessey’s outstanding performance landed him the founding directorship of the Morris County Shelter for Juvenile Offenders, where he worked until 1978.

BIRTHDAY CASKETS AND FICUS CAMPAIGNS

Life changed in 1984, when the Hennesseys purchased the Washington Bar and re-named it Hennessey’s Washington Bar.

From his perch there, his obituary reflected, Jim Hennessey would dispense wisdom and guide “many to sobriety.”  Friends said he quit drinking before buying the bar.

Jim worked long days and nights, and Ann was his business manager.

“When he first bought the bar, it was a very different place. It was dark and smoky, an old man’s kind of bar,” said Matthew Hennessey. He remembered his father saying it was not much more than a beer-and-shots place.

But after renovation and a lot of hard work, younger clientele began to arrive and the establishment took off. They were attracted by the camaraderie and warmth of the surroundings, and in no small measure by Hennessey himself.

“We always understood that Dad had a lot of friends,” said Matthew Hennessey. “He seemed to have gone to high school with everybody, seemed to have worked with everybody, and at some point caroused with everybody.”

He described car rides where his father rolled down the window at every stoplight and called someone’s name. “He was a regular guy with more friends than he even knew.”

Father and son occasionally tended the bar, and “to see him at work was a little like being with a celebrity,” said Matthew. “People were happy to see him because he was so much fun to be with.”

Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore at Hennessey’s Washington Bar, headquarters for the 2000 Congressional campaign of a ficus plant.

Some of the stories became the stuff of local legend. There’s the one about the coffin sent over by his cousins, who owned Doyle’s Funeral Home. It was a surprise party for Hennessey’s 50th birthday, and according to Matthew, the Doyles brought an empty coffin to the bar to remind him his life was half over.

“He actually climbed into this thing — my mother wasn’t too happy about it at all,” the son recounted.

After the renovation, the beer well behind the bar was made to look like a coffin, as a tribute to the other part of the Hennessey family’s business in town.

Another time, singer Cyndi Lauper, who was filming a commercial nearby, came in for a drink. Whether it was her spiky hair or her complaint about the service, Hennessey took offense and asked her to leave. He never knew who she was.

Hennessey used his sense of humor to garner publicity for the bar, promoting watermelon races around town. But nothing was quite as famous as his connection with a Congressional candidate, Mr. Ficus.

In 2000, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore came to town and decided run a ficus plant against Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen who was unopposed for his third term in Congress.

Hennessey’s bar became headquarters for Mr. Ficus, and segments of the escapade were filmed there and on the Morristown Green. The short episode, The Choice, can be viewed on YouTube under Ficus for Congress — The Awful Truth.

“There was no back channel connection there,” said Matthew Hennessey. “My Dad liked a good laugh and likely volunteered.”

Mr. Ficus, a write-in candidate who never spoke, had no platform, but won an estimated 68-150 votes that were not deemed countable. The candidate was displayed prominently in the window along with campaign paraphernalia to identify him. He remained there for a long time after his defeat.

GRAND MARSHAL, FRIENDLY SON

Hennessey’s loyalty and generosity to his friends defined him, as did pride in his Irish heritage. A charter member of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, he marched as Grand Marshall of the Morris County St. Patrick’s Parade in 2004.

He also raised money for The Irish Way, led private tours to Ireland, and was a stockholder of the Washington Association of New Jersey.

In 2010, Hennessey presented a plaque to the Morristown National Historical Park at Jockey Hollow, honoring Irish soldiers who suffered there for two winters during the Revolution. Hennessey observed that 25 percent of the soldiers fighting for American independence were Irish:

Video: Jim Hennessey meets George Washington in 2010:

Hennessey also served on the board of Holy Rood Cemetery, where he visited his wife’s grave almost every day since her death from leukemia a decade ago.

He often brought a chair and stayed awhile, reminiscing with the love of his life and keeping her informed on the latest news, MacKenzie said.

Hennessey sold the bar a couple of years after his wife’s passing.

“There have been as many weddings here as there were divorces,” he remarked at the time. The place now is called The End of Elm.

Jim ‘Hambone’ Hennessey

Before the coronavirus shutdown last month, MacKenzie brought Hennessey to lunch with a handful of old friends. Melanoma had spread to Hambone’s liver and lungs.

“We could see he was fading,” Jack Gutjahr said. Yet Hambone picked up the tab. “He was very generous, to a fault. A lot of fun to be around.”

Hennessey’s last hurrah was in Mendham, where he and Ann had resided. He was joined there in his last years by his daughter Colleen and her husband.

A few weeks before the governor issued pandemic stay-at-home orders, Hennessey’s family hosted a party for his 85th birthday.

The invitation said it all:

Help us celebrate the first 85 years of Hambone’s long and well lived life. He’s been everywhere, done everything, and gotten away with more than the rest of us will ever attempt, so please, just bring yourself and your anecdotes, but no presents.

Jim Hennessey is survived by his sister Claire Benz of Morris Plains and four children: Mary Ann of Strasbourg, France; Colleen (husband Don) of Mendham; Matthew (wife Ursula) of Yonkers, NY; and Michael (wife Stacie) of Austin, TX; and by nine grandchildren.

Kevin Coughlin contributed to this report.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Hennessey’s – or as my friend Kevin Walsh deemed it, The Doctors – was always top of the list for places I wanted to be when I lived in New Jersey. I thank Jim for bringing a great deal of joy to so many. My best to his family and friends.

  2. Jim was an old friend of my late husband, Wendell Brady. How fortunate that Wendell. Hambone and Itsy were able to remain friends for more than 70 years, in the Town where they grew up. Ham may not have publicly criticized others in the community but often he and Wendell would joke about those who took credit for services not given and their bogus credentials. Once, Ham showed us a catelog of medals and honors and we all had a good laugh about about how easy it was to be a phony hero. They joked about the bullies, who backed off when confronted. Their experiences in their youth led them to be compassionate and kind, never seeking any of the honors and awards they had earned.

  3. A very nice tribute – thank you.

    I knew Jim well. He was a great guy. I never heard him say an unkind word about anybody.

    May he rest in peace.

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