Thursday 24 Jul 2014

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Dennis begins second year as AHA chair with gusto

Published: 10:58 am CDT, July 1, 2014

Bernie Dennis has a favorite saying about his favorite organization: “People don’t need the American Heart Association … until they need the American Heart Association.”

He’s exhibit A. It took a few heart attacks and a quadruple bypass to get him involved.

While recovering, a rehabilitation nurse challenged him to raise money for his local Heart Walk in Rochester, New York. Looking over a pamphlet, he realized the organization had been like a guardian angel for him.

“The AHA’s fingerprints were all over everything that helped me live,” he said.

Dennis raised $500 that year. It was enough to draw the attention of one of the organization’s local leaders, and off he went – all the way to the top of the organization. On July 1, Dennis started the second year of a two-year term as chairman of the board.

“Prior to my heart attack, I didn’t really embrace the messages very seriously,” he said. “A near-death experience entirely changes the way you view life. After a really rough month in the hospital, I felt indebted to the AHA.

“When you think about it, it’s not just a debt. There’s this interesting wrinkle of it being an opportunity. You can be part of an organization that helps hundreds of thousands of people every year.”

***

The turning point in Dennis’ life came in April 1995, and it started while he was traveling.

Being on the road meant scarfing fast food and burning through cigarettes. He also was facing intense pressure at work. He’d long been a busy executive, having worked 17 years for Eastman Kodak before joining Oracle Corp.; at this point, he was a little more than six years into a 14-year run in which he rose to vice president.

Finally home, he felt “pain in in my chest the size of a marble.” He let his wife and son go out while he stayed home and slept.

When he woke up, that marble had grown to a softball. And it was burning.

Luckily, his wife, Joyce, and son, Patrick, came home early. They got him to a hospital – the same one where his father died.

Following his initial heart attack, Dennis experienced congestive heart failure. His heart wasn’t pumping very well and he was in serious trouble. He could’ve given up. He chose living, but it wouldn’t be as simple as that.

He endured another heart attack, an angioplasty that unfortunately failed, and then the big operation – the quadruple bypass, which was done on an emergency basis.

He woke up hurting and unable to move or talk. He had no idea what happened. Recovery and rehabilitation were slow and painful.

But he made it. He lived. He recovered.

“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the AHA donors and volunteers, for unknown colleagues whose financial support fueled the AHA’s wonderful work, for unknown colleagues whose footsteps we are following,” Dennis said.  “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for their sacrifice.”

Being here has meant seeing his son graduate high school, then college. He’s seen his son get married and have a daughter, Anya. Then another, Elyse. In April, he and wife celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary.

Those milestones – as well as smaller, simpler things, like playing Santa Claus every Christmas – are among the things Dennis would’ve missed.

“You don’t really appreciate the life memories you are putting at risk before you face heart disease,” he said.

***

Before his heart attacks, Dennis knew of the American Heart Association, considering it a “good organization … does a lot of great research.” The 1995 Heart Walk expanded his view.

His first big role in shaping the AHA was as chairmanship of the Rochester, New York, Division from 2001-03. The following year, he retired from Oracle and started Dennis Associates, LLC, a management consulting firm based in Sudbury, Massachusetts, focused on communications and leadership programs in the technology industry.

Being on his own also freed more time for his volunteer work.

From 2008-10, he was chairman of the Founders Affiliate. He was the national secretary-treasurer in 2011-12, and has served on all sorts of other committees and cabinets.

In 2010-11, Dennis chaired a Workplace Giving Initiative, which resulted in significant increases in employee donations to the AHA and other organizations. He’s also helped create a strategy to engage employees from other organization to become active volunteers.

He’s passionate about scientific research funding. He’s urged the government to invest more for the National Institutes of Health to support research that can lead to lifesaving breakthroughs.

Along the way, he’s remained a committed fundraiser himself, becoming among the top Heart Walkers in 2006 and 2010.

“After I raised the first $500, it took about two months for them to ask me to chair a Heart Walk,” he said. “I was clueless as to how I could help, but I knew I could probably raise money. Volunteers who raise money are a commodity you can never have enough of.”

Not only did Dennis have a knack for it, he enjoyed it. He loved sharing his personal story, and hearing those of others.

Along the way, he developed another line he likes to use: “The AHA is the story of many stories.”

“People deliver to you the reasons for their passion and commitment to the organization,” he said. “They all rip your heart out. They are all told with gratitude. Some with a little remorse. But all are told by people who are passionate in their support of what we do.

“Couple with that the spirit of people volunteering their time. There’s nothing more pure than that. You see it everywhere. It all comes from the spirit of volunteerism. It’s really wonderful to see.”

***

Of all the stories Dennis collected his first year as chairman, one stands out as most symbolic.

It was February, and he was in New York during Fashion Week to attend the Red Dress Collection event, a collaboration between the American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s The Heart Truth.

Dennis decided the tie he’d packed was below par for the occasion. So he headed out to the designer stores near Lincoln Center for an upgrade. When he stopped for lunch, two women at a nearby table were reviewing their Fashion Week program. Soon, all three were chatting about their plans.

Go Red For Women is so effective about delivering the message that heart disease is the number one killer of women,’” one of the women told him.

Imagine how that thrilled him.

“This is a woman whose plans didn’t include that event,” Dennis said, reflecting on that conversation. “She was just commenting on what she knew about the Go Red movement and heart disease.

“If you thought back 10 years ago when Go Red started, nobody knew about it, and few people appreciated it. Now, here I am in a random restaurant and the woman next to me was articulating our message. That’s what made this one of the highlights of the year. It showed how over the course of those 10 years, everyday people are embracing our work.”

***

As chairman of the board, Dennis is responsible for the overall administration of the association’s business affairs, public relations and fundraising. He also presides over meetings of the board of directors and administrative cabinet.

Having done it all for the last year, he knows what is ahead.

He also knows the 2013-14 fiscal year, which ended June 30, might be tough to top.

“This was a breakout year,” he said. “We turned a corner from the economic downturn of 2008.”

Dennis is eager to build on it, and he believes there are fertile areas to target.

He’s excited about the potential of the Cor Vitae Society, a special recognition for anyone who gives at least $5,000 annually. Retention rates are high, as are the numbers of newcomers.

“Thanking them is an important activity, and I can certainly demonstrate gratitude and appreciation,” he said.

He’s also eager to crank up the dialogue between national officers and their counterparts in the organization’s offices around the country. He noted that last year’s top fundraising innovation – the use of rubber ducks as an incentive in youth markets – started on the local level and quickly spread across the organization.

“There are more great ideas like the ducks simmering out there in the field that we’ve got to unleash,” he said.

He cares deeply about the organization’s work with the World Health Foundation and about the progress of the Diversity Leadership Committee. He’s a big fan of the faith-based initiatives that have used clergy to help deliver lifesaving messages.

“It’s given us access to people we’ve never had,” he said.

Similarly, the upstart CEO Roundtable uses business leaders to reach employees. Both of these relationships underscore the spirit of cooperation and partnerships that are necessary for any organization to thrive, even one that’s been around 90 years and is widely respected.

“Good ideas naturally flow from this organization,” Dennis said. “It’s getting them into practice and delivering an impact that’s important. I’m really looking forward to being part of the leadership team that gets them started.”

During this second year as chairman of the AHA, Dennis will celebrate the 20-year anniversary of his life-altering cardiac event. This alone makes him living proof of what the organization is capable of doing.

 

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