Gene Hennig didn’t start a bucket list after being diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2013, at age 65. He was already well on his way to completing one that was broad and deep.
Hennig had started nonprofits, summited mountains, traveled the world. “He was the kind of guy who did his bucket list as he went along in life,” daughter Emily Hennig said.
A respected business attorney and law instructor who served on national commissions and local nonprofit boards, Hennig died Aug. 25 in his Chanhassen home. He was 67. The son of Lutheran missionaries, Hennig grew up climbing mountains in southern India. He graduated in 1965 from Kodaikanal International School, which decades later gave him its highest honor for his service.
He earned a mechanical engineering degree from Valparaiso University in Indiana but didn’t like the work. After watching Perry Mason he decided to be a lawyer, and enrolled in law school. He moved to Minnesota to clerk for Walter Rogosheske, a Minnesota Supreme Court justice.
He was a brilliant thinker whose childhood in India gave him a distinct take on culture, said Eric Magnuson, former chief justice of the state Supreme Court who was, at the time, a fellow clerk. It also meant that he was unprepared for the frigid temps, he said, chuckling. “He didn’t own boots or hats or gloves.”
Back at Valparaiso, teaching law, he spotted a beautiful fellow faculty member in academic garb.
“I was impressed by all the places he had been in the world,” his wife, Kristie Hennig, said. Less than three months after their first date, Hennig proposed.
The pair moved to Minneapolis, the city Hennig loved, where he began a long career at Rider Bennett Egan and Arundel LLP. In 2007, he moved to Gray Plant Mooty.
A co-founder of the Chicago Lake Legal Aid Clinic and longtime volunteer and board member for LegalCORPS, Hennig believed in bringing legal services to those who could not afford them. He also taught law at area schools.
“One of the things that fascinated me was how many of his students … hired him to be their lawyer when they got out and were in business,” Magnuson said. “And it was because people trusted Gene’s judgment.”
His career crested with his appointment, in 2009, to the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, which proposes acts in areas that benefit from uniformity across states.
Fellow commissioner and state Rep. Melissa Hortman, who first met Hennig at Rider Bennett, saw how his care for clients translated to the group’s work.
“We passed more acts in 2015 than we’ve passed in a long time,” Hortman said, “and it was because of his diligence.”
Hennig came up with the idea for the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act — “also known as the what-happens-to-your-Facebook-account-when-you-die act,” Hortman explained. After digital media companies opposed it, Hennig worked with them to create a compromise that Hortman believes will be enacted in many places next year.
In his final months, Hennig pared down his possessions to the best treasures from trips abroad and something closer to home — the brown velvet couch on which he proposed to Kristie. It sits, shrink-wrapped, in the garage.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with it,” his wife said, “but it’s kind of sweet that he just couldn’t get rid of it.”
His family will spread his ashes in four spots: at Mount Olive in Minneapolis, at Valparaiso in Indiana, in the wilderness of the Quetico — he marked the location on a map — and outside a church in southern India.
A funeral will be held 11 a.m. Thursday at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.