What is lost when someone in your community, a quiet and thoughtful leader, dies? On Friday afternoon that question kept returning to me after news arrived of Bill Henningsgaard’s death in a plane crash in Connecticut.
Bill was a colleague and someone I admired for his volunteer work in Bellevue where our families live. Immediately and for hours afterward, a dulling, heavy sadness slowed my movements as those of us at Crosscut tried to make sense of the news for our afternoon report. I kept returning to that question, what is lost for my community — the kids and the families — to whom Bill had dedicated the second act of his life?
I first met Bill in a sunny, off-campus office in downtown Bellevue when we both worked for Microsoft. I can’t recall the circumstances of the meeting, but I remember being struck by something I didn’t always find among my colleagues at Microsoft. He listened. Mostly people had ideas and opinions to assert, but Bill listened, asked thoughtful questions and always ended with a crisp summary of what was decided and what was to come next.
That meeting in the 1990s was very similar to the one I had with him just three weeks before his death. We met last month in a conference room in Redmond where he had helped to assemble a few Eastside leaders to discuss a more strategic approach to civic engagement, something he felt was imperative in order for there to be progress in the diverse and sometimes divided communities of East King County. Bill and his wife, Susan, are members of Crosscut, and Bill had been intrigued with the idea that journalism could help better illuminate, explain and galvanize Eastside communities, where there is no daily newspaper.
That the Eastside has become more diverse than Seattle is largely common knowledge now. That diversity is racial, religious, economic and so on. It is also jurisdictionally fractured among cities, towns, neighborhood associations and school districts. It is the super wealthy, the working class and the poor. In Bellevue alone there are 84 languages spoken, and 25 percent of the students in public schools here receive free or reduced lunch, a marker for poverty.
Crosscut’s Eric Scigliano delved deep into these sub-cutaneous issues earlier this year, and Crosscut held a conversation about them this spring, which Bill attended. In his reporting, Eric asks, “What draws immigrants to the Eastside and keeps them there? The answer is a single word: ‘School!’”
Better education for every student, regardless of race, color or creed motivated Bill Henningsgaard. He founded and ran Eastside Pathways to better align government, school and nonprofit service providers behind the idea of “collective impact.” More oars in the water rowing in unison toward a shared vision. (The idea caught the eye of our founder and editor-at-large, David Brewster, when he wrote recently about the need for bigger ideas in the Seattle mayoral campaign.)
Bill and the team at Eastside Pathways are focusing first on Bellevue out of a belief that limiting the geographic focus will enable them to “start small, build the effort, and then expand to the greater Eastside.”
And there it is. What is lost with Bill’s death, of course, is a husband, a father and a friend. What also is lost is a guiding light, a founder, someone with a vision. Bill had a firm strategic focus as well as a creative sense of how to accomplish the vision of a community united behind the idea and the ideal that all kids can succeed in school and ultimately in work.
Paul Shoemaker is the executive director of Social Venture Partners in Seattle. He was a close friend and former colleague of Bill’s. A few weeks ago they sat down together to talk about Bill’s work at Eastside Pathways. Bill insisted he had done nothing special. Asked why he had donated his time and resources to Eastside Pathways and other charitable efforts, he was quick to reply, “how could I not?”
Bill understood the skills and privilege he had acquired were also obligations. He was more convinced than ever that when the poor and disenfranchised come to realize their collective power they will not wait for others to improve opportunities for their children and families.
On Friday at 1pm at Bellevue's First Presbyterian Church there will be a memorial service for Bill and son Max. A new executive director will eventually take Bill’s place at Eastside Pathways. But before we just move on from the dramatic news of last week, let’s remember the movement Bill ignited, what has been lost and what still should be achieved.
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