John Heneghan; Advanced Maritime Jobs for Minorities

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2007

John Martin Heneghan, 79, who opened many doors in maritime employment and training for women and minorities, died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Sept. 3 at his Bethesda home.

In 1974, Mr. Heneghan persuaded the administrator of the Maritime Administration to open the Merchant Marine Academy to women, making it the first federal service academy to go coeducational. He significantly increased the number of women and African Americans in shipyard jobs and delayed the contract for an aircraft carrier until an effective affirmative action program was in place.

Taking those actions required a spine of iron, an element that was forged from his work in the Mississippi Delta during the Freedom Summer of 1964. Mr. Heneghan, who was working in the Navy's Atlanta office as an equal employment opportunity contract compliance officer, volunteered to go to Mississippi with Navy colleague Gene Heller to track down and take complaints against companies that held federal contracts.

"It was sort of tense," said Heller, who lives in Denver. "Word quickly got out within the establishment that we were doing investigations and compliance reviews for the government. . . . We used our rearview mirror quite a bit."

One morning as the men were leaving their hotel, an unfriendly sheriff wearing a huge sidearm greeted them as he leaned against their car. Thereafter, the men adopted a precautionary routine of checking under the hood before starting the car.

When they found a black man willing to sign a formal complaint about an unjust termination, no white person would notarize the document. Luckily, Mr. Heneghan knew of "possibly the only black notary in Mississippi. We drove 50 miles to get that complaint notarized," Heller said.

They spent about 10 days in the Delta, and the knowledge acquired there served Mr. Heneghan later when he was director of the office of civil rights in the Department of Commerce's Maritime Administration. Many of the shipyards his office investigated were on the Gulf Coast.

Mr. Heneghan was born in the Bronx, N.Y. He enlisted in the Navy during World War II and served in the United States. He later graduated from Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and became the research and training director for the cement workers' union in Chicago.

He received a master's degree in industrial relations from Loyola University in Chicago in 1957 and was an assistant professor at the school for the next six years. He retired from the Navy Reserve as a commander in 1978.

While working as a civilian for the Navy in Atlanta, he was a member of the initial task force in 1965 that helped set up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

By 1966, Mr. Heneghan had become the deputy regional director of the EEOC in Atlanta. Two years later, he moved to the Maritime Administration in Washington. During the next 10 years, he increased the shipyard employment of women in blue-collar jobs from .2 percent to 5.4 percent and that of skilled black workers from 14.6 to 25.6 percent.

In 1970, as Newport News Shipbuilding prepared to start work on the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower, Mr. Heneghan held up the contract award for a month because the company's employment practices were "as close as one could come in those days to separate but not yet equal," Heller said.

With Adm. Hyman Rickover urging faster action, Mr. Heneghan learned that the laying of the vessel's keel had already been scheduled, and two young celebrities were to preside: Julie Nixon Eisenhower, the president's daughter, and her husband, David. After negotiations that involved the White House, the shipyard changed its hiring practices.

Mr. Heneghan retired in 1981 as director of the enforcement coordination division of the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.

He was a member of and volunteer with the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission, So Others Might Eat, Meals on Wheels, the Irish American Club and Knights of Columbus. He was an avid board game player and in retirement played in two poker games every week. He also enjoyed music, history and Irish dancing.

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Mary Teresa Coyle Heneghan of Bethesda; 12 children, John Coyle Heneghan, Tia Heneghan and Celia Hammond, all of Colorado Springs, Mary Ellen King and Mary Jo Heneghan, both of Gaithersburg, Philip Mongan Heneghan of Potomac, Margaret Heneghan of Homer, Alaska, Brigid McCarthy of Anchor Point, Alaska, Martin Corcoran Heneghan of Duvall, Wash., Cate Heneghan of Altadena, Calif., James Meehan Heneghan of Santa Fe, N.M., and Patrick Heneghan of Bethany Beach, Del.; a brother; 15 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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