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Ann Bennis, Dan Hennelly Are Winners of ODU Staff Dream Fund Awards

Thanks to Old Dominion's Staff Dream Fund, two university employees will soon be able to realize their long-held desires: one to spend a week in Ireland doing genealogical research, and the other to publish a novel.

The proposals of two longtime ODU employees, Ann Tatman Bennis and Dan Hennelly, were selected by the Staff Dream Fund Committee as the winners in this year's competition (see photos below).

Bennis, director of the IT Policy and Project Management Office within the Office of Computing and Communications Services, will use the endowed funds she was awarded to take her years of genealogical research to the next level by traveling to Northern Ireland to learn more about her family roots.

"Because I was adopted and without any information about my own roots, I have had a sense of obligation to preserve the past for future generations," Bennis said in her letter to the committee. "This has been my passion for over 40 years. Today the availability of online resources has expanded, and in many ways, eased the genealogical research process. However, the direct, firsthand examination of historical records in the context of where they were created is often the best (sometimes the only) way to discover the character and qualities of the people they represent."

The committee will award $3,000 to Bennis for the trip, which will cover airfare, ground transportation, lodging and meals. In her proposal, Bennis said that she had completed most of her family history during four decades of research - with one exception, the history of the Reid family in Ireland. Her adoptive father's family (surnames Reid and O'Neil) came from Ireland, immigrating through Canada into Michigan.

While in Northern Ireland, Bennis plans to visit the places that retain the primary source material - libraries, public record offices and historical societies - and visit the family village, church and graveyard in Ballynahinch.

"It was a dream I shared with my father, Joe Reid. He was an ardent supporter of my genealogy efforts. He loved hearing about my latest finding. I had always promised him that we'd go to Ireland together and find those Reid ancestors. However, he passed away in 2009 without knowing much about his native Irish ancestors. It would mean a lot to me to be able to complete this search to document and humanize my Irish ancestors to the maximum extent possible."

Bennis even has smaller dreams within her big dream - one is to actually meet some distant relatives and another is to uncover the story of a particular ancestor from the early 19th century who received a land grant based on his efforts as a companion in India to Lord Ainsley of England, to find out if the incomplete family oral history points to his being "a scoundrel or a hero" in connection with the land grant.

"Being able to interview others with the surname (my potential living cousins) would greatly interest me," Bennis wrote in her proposal. "The true fantasy is to connect with a like-minded relative that invites me to see the old family albums and chat up the history!"

She added: "The trip would essentially be the field research. The hard work would come later as the entirety would need to be evaluated for connections and linkages. Follow-up will likely be necessary; all the more reason to connect with local archivists, librarians and others who share an interest.

"Once that is done, it would be remarkable (and very meaningful to me) to document my findings and share with my family and with my relatives in Michigan who also have been unable to crack that gap between Canada and Ireland. Once this branch of the family tree has been explored, I feel that I could write a book, at least for the family, and perhaps for inclusion in genealogical libraries. So in short, my dream is to contribute to the body of work now assembled and move the history forward for future generations."

Hennelly, academic services analyst with the Office of Academic Affairs, will use the $1,600 he was awarded by the Dream Fund Selection Committee to use iUniverse, a print-on-demand publisher based in Bloomington, Ind., to self-publish his whodunit murder mystery, titled "Fatal Knowledge." Print-on-demand publishing will enable readers to purchase the book through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

His dream to write a book was something he initially held as a private passion. Hennelly said he was previously unsuccessful in getting a science fiction novel published, but he remained undeterred. He later decided to switch genres.

In his Dream Fund proposal, Hennelly said: "Having a novel published is very difficult; literary agents are reluctant to represent an author with no publishing credits. One noted science fiction writer with over 20 novels to his credit noted in his blog that his current agent only began representing him after he's won two prestigious science fiction writing awards and had several novels already in print.

"Publishers and bookstores are currently in a period of transition (witness the demise of the Borders bookstore chain) and publishers have drastically cut back on the number of new titles being published."

In a statement of support for his Dream Fund proposal, Lorraine Lees, ODU professor of history and a neighbor of Hennelly, noted that her university colleague is serious about his after-work-hours craft and that he attends a writing workshop. She called his new novel an entertaining murder mystery," adding: "Dan, after working on a college campus for nearly 30 years, has captured the details of campus life and given the book the aura of authenticity."

Much of the inspiration for the book, Hennelly acknowledged, came from his days as a student at the College of William and Mary.

In his proposal, he discussed the genesis for his dream. "Over a decade ago, my father received a package unexpectedly in the mail. His late cousin, a Catholic priest, had written a novel to occupy himself while he was undergoing treatments for lymphoma that eventually took his life. The novel was drawn from his boyhood in Massachusetts and his career as a U.S. Navy chaplain. A friend sent copies of his unpublished novel to his close friends and family after his death.

"It struck me then, why should one wait until you're dying to fulfill you dreams. I'd always wanted to write a novel and in 2000 began my quest. My ambition was not to write the great American novel; I just wanted to write a novel that someone would enjoy reading on the beach.

"That summer I started writing a science fiction novel. There were several false starts; I wrote three different openings, which were set aside. I wrote in secret after my wife and children went to bed or early morning on the weekends when the house was quiet. It was a private passion - one that I shared with my family only after a year had passed and I had something concrete to show for my efforts. Four years passed before I told any of my friends. Working full time did not allow me much time to pursue my writing but I made steady progress."

The ODU Staff Dream Fund was established in 2008 to help deserving employees realize a long-held dream. The endowed fund provides monetary awards and up to five days of paid time off for staff members to fulfill their dream - pursuing studies in an area unrelated to work, traveling to another country or visiting family far away, for example. The award is not intended to address personal hardship situations, emergencies or job-related professional development.

Full-time classified employees and full-time administrative and professional faculty who have worked at the university for a minimum of five years are eligible to submit proposals for the annual awards. Applicants must have satisfactory or higher performance evaluations and no active disciplinary actions against them.

This article was posted on: April 9, 2012

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