A father’s love: homage to Michael Denning

Hanley Denning convinced many doubters to believe in her project in the Guatemala City garbage dump. One of the most compelling stories of conversion was that of her father, Michael Denning, a successful international banker in Maine. Michael died on Saturday, September 17, at age 77. He was a loving father and a standout athlete with a zest for living. He passed his tenacity and endurance along to his children — Hanley, Jordan, Seth and Lucas. According to Michael’s obituary, “As a younger man, he loved nothing better (aside from family) than rising at 5 a.m. for a vigorous run. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow would interrupt those runs.”

The following excerpt from Angel of the Garbage Dump shows how Michael came around to support Hanley’s project after initially disapproving of it:

“Han’s not coming back? What do you mean Han’s not coming back?” Michael’s voice sounded flabbergasted, incredulous when Marina told him the news.

“She’s going to stay in Guatemala? But what about her work in North Carolina? What about her career? She has a degree from Bowdoin College! She’s wasting her education!”

Jordan, too, remembers that Michael “flipped out a little bit” and disapproved of Hanley’s decision when he first learned of it. Jordan also learned the news via telephone. He had moved to Charleston, South Carolina, to work for a law firm there. “Mother was on board and kind of understood,” Hanley’s brother reflected later. “My father was much more pragmatic—at the time anyway. He wanted her to come back here, to get a job, and build on the career she had started.”

And who could fault Michael Denning for wishing his only daughter would return home? Home to a familiar, comfortable, and safe setting. Home to apply her compassionate social worker skills in a community here in the United States that needed them. Home to be closer to family, to enjoy meals together, to run together or shoot hoops together with him. Christmas was nearly upon them, after all. Who could fault a father for that wish?

Michael’s fears that Hanley was putting herself in danger launching a project in the Guatemala City garbage dump in Zone 3, a violent, gang-infested and polluted hellhole—a place whose fortunes almost no one of wealth had cared about, until now—those fears were legitimate. There were a hundred scenarios in which the ambitious, naive gringa’s adventure in the basurero could end badly. And yet, the white-collar banker, the pedigree of standout athletes, would have to accept the choice his 29-year-old, strong-willed, independent daughter was making.

Hanley’s grit almost certainly came from her paternal side. Michael’s father, Francis “Rock” Denning, was a legendary high school football coach and boxer in steel country Bradford, Pennsylvania, in the 1950s. Michael followed his dad to the line of scrimmage, playing both football and basketball at Hobart College with his buddy Bob Avaunt—Hanley’s Godparent. Then Michael took to running in the ’70s and ’80s, to be kinder on his body after his collegiate sports career ended. Jordan remembered that their father fanatically trained and obsessed with running and finishing marathons. Jordan and Lucas would become standout basketball players in their own right. Seth’s athleticism led him to join the U.S. Coast Guard.

The running bug was what bit Hanley. She dabbled in basketball, but hoops—or perhaps team sports in general—weren’t really her thing. “She used that long-distance running time to think, and plan stuff, and map out her individual challenges,” Jordan said. “I think she enjoyed running so much because it gave her time to organize her thoughts without having 100 different voices coming at her, or people asking her things, or for her to delegate things. It was her time to lay out in her mind what she had to do that day.”

Athletics were always part of the Denning family’s daily ritual. In the mornings, at 5:30 or 6 a.m., Michael would send the kids out the door to run up and down the hill where they lived, five times, just to get their blood flowing. The kids would do it in rain, sleet, or snow. It didn’t matter. “He instilled that in all of us,” reflected Jordan.


Sometime during the holiday season—perhaps only a few weeks after Michael’s initial reaction to the news that Hanley wasn’t returning from Guatemala—he ran into his buddy Doug Pride in the YMCA locker room, just off Route 1 between Yarmouth and Freeport. Michael beamed as he told Doug, “Hanley is starting this new program in Guatemala. My daughter is doing this!” Doug, who at the time knew nothing about Guatemala other than where to find it on a map, noted an unmistakable sense of pride in Michael’s voice. The father was clearly in awe that his daughter could go to a foreign country and start a program from scratch to help children in need. Doug would get updates from Michael from time to time in the YMCA locker room about Hanley. Michael had come around fast.

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