University of Puget Sound administrators kicked Dennis Flannigan out of school for messing with the way things are supposed to be.
Close to 50 years later, they gave him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree for the same thing.
A total of 707 UPS graduates – 600 with bachelors of arts or sciences, 106 with master’s degrees, and one new Doctor of Physical Therapy – accepted their diplomas under sunny skies Sunday.
Flannigan, 72, has made his way without one.
He helped feed the hungry, clean up the streets, fight crime, teach people to read and get them off drugs. He represented Tacoma on the Pierce County Council, and retired as a Washington State representative.
But he became a local legend for the perspective he’s brought to his work, friends, love and lunch.
It’s apt, then, that UPS would give him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. Flannigan is amused to say he’s broken laws, and made them – laws that can be codified or enforced.
He operates by other laws: logic, nature, fairness.
“Everyone I speak to seems to know Dennis and everyone says you will only ever meet one Dennis Flannigan,” said Shirley Skeel, UPS media manager.
Flannigan’s mother was a Norwegian homemaker and PTA stalwart and his Irish father was a cabinetmaker and union man who founded a small life insurance company, Union Employees Mutual Life Insurance Co.
Between them, the five Flannigan kids could play piano, sing opera, drive commercial truck, keep all their fingers while working in a sawmill, run a store, sell paint and property, catch salmon and steal nickels out of pinball machines.
Flannigan had made it through Jason Lee Middle School and Stadium High School and worked in Buffelen’s mill when he thought he’d like college.
“The day UPS opened, I drove up there and asked, ‘Can I go to school here?’” he said. “They said, ‘For $275, yes.’ That began a love-hate relationship with UPS.”
He wasn’t a great student. His mind careens between ideas.
“I didn’t know or think that you start with A and go to B,” he said. “I thought you could start at any letter.”
He read American history and novels.
“I began to experience literature as a profound experience. I read about the Vietnam War and grew increasingly pacifistic,” he said.
The civil rights movement was taking hold and the conflict in Vietnam was intensifying.
“All of the things that were the heartbeat of the young people, the university ignored,” Flannigan said.
He set about fixing that with a satirical newspaper, The Brail, that among other things poked fun at donors. The first issue got him called to a meeting with administrators.
Do it again and you’re gone, they told him.
He did it again, and they were true to their threat.
That, he said, is when UPS changed his life.
In 1964, he trained to become a civil rights worker in the South.
Before he left, he realized he was in love with Ilse Silins, a student working at the UPS library front desk.
“I was smitten, and she was shy,” he said. “You had to check out the TNT or the P-I from the front desk, and I figured that if I did that every day, she would notice me. She didn’t.”
He worked some, but itched to change the world.
“I marched off to Mississippi,” he said.
In Mississippi, he was communications manager for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael was his boss.
It was good work, he said, but a struggle.
When he came home, he married Ilse.
They had, he said, “a wonderful life, a wonderful life.”
Their two children are happy and successful. Their home on the edge of the North End was lived in, not elegant. At work, he was always on to the next thing.
Work at the Hilltop Housing and Relocation Office led to a state program responsible for the war on poverty, which led to teaching with Western Washington University.
He worked at Comprehensive Mental Health Services, and ran Pierce County Alliance.
He helped form, then direct, Emergency Food Network.
In 1988, he was appointed to the Pierce County Council.
“District 4 is mostly in the city of Tacoma, which doesn’t need county services except the big ones, like courts and the jail,” he said. “I made it a place where you can vote your conscience and address the big issues.”
Crime, gangs, drugs made the list, and Flannigan convened the meetings that led to Safe Streets.
“The community bought into it because they could come together and disagree without being disagreeable,” he said. “It was just struggling together.”
In four terms in the Legislature, he wrote his every speech, pamphlet and statement, including this: “If it’s so easy, why are we in this mess? What does Dennis Flannigan offer? Certainly not any out-of-the-box, my-way-or-the-highway solutions. You know, those Democrats must do this and Republicans must do that garbage. Bunkum!”
“I’m a person people love to elect and hate to hire,” he said.
Ilse died of colon cancer Dec. 11, 2009. In mourning, he quit politics.
Instead, he mobilizes the soul of Tacoma. His yard is a community garden. He’s famous for long and lovely conversations at great cheap restaurants. He invites Facebook friends to share the Tacoma places that move them most. He pushes those friends to act on their passion for the city, and their country. He goads them to break political restraints to make a fine community stronger.
And now he has a degree to back him up.Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/street