Reflections on Dennis Keenan

Last week, we highlighted the long career of Dennis Keenan, executive director of Wheeler from 1977 to 1998, as part of our ongoing series of 50th anniversary stories. This week, we're sharing some personal reflections on Dennis from his team and current Wheeler leaders who worked with him.

“Dennis was a tremendous mentor to me. He’s a wonderful person and leader who was and is passionate about Wheeler’s work and people. It was obvious from even a casual conversation with him that he truly listened, cared and told you like it was. His leadership was key, at pivotal points in our early history and growth. He and his team laid the foundation we build on today.”

Susan Walkama, LCSW
President and CEO
Susan first began working at Wheeler in 1982.

“Dennis was a very committed and caring executive director; committed to everyone we serve and our staff. He wanted to know about our families and would remember surprising details. Several years after he retired, he asked me once about my mother's artwork, and the fact that he remembered she was an artist and remembered specific details of her art was impressive. He also identified that he was inspired himself by the work being done; when he talked to you about Wheeler, you knew he was proud of our staff, and that was energizing.”

Elisabeth Cannata, Ph.D.
Vice President, Community-Based Family Services & Practice Innovation
Elisabeth first began working at Wheeler in 1995.

“Dennis encouraged each of us to grow, to believe in our own talents, and to use those talents to move Wheeler forward. He helped me to reach further and to achieve goals that had seemed out of reach. His leadership style included trust and compassion, wisdom and generosity; it was always clear that he valued each staff member’s contribution to the success of the organization. And, not to minimize for a second, he recognized that laughter is a daily necessity for success. Dennis remains a good and dear friend. I will be forever grateful.”

Elaine Couture (far right in photo below)
Human Resources
Elaine worked at Wheeler from 1972 to 2011.

“How to describe a dear friend and mentor? Under Dennis Keenan’s leadership, Wheeler Clinic earned the highest respect from the Board, community, donors, state and federal agencies, including its funders, for service quality and financial integrity. But from a staff perspective, perhaps his most enduring legacy was his work to assure that Wheeler develop as a welcoming, productive and positive place to work. With enlightened policies and thoughtful benefits, Wheeler has been able to recruit and retain the best staff. Dennis knew how to nurture and inspire and to elicit the best from each of us. There was a reason that our leadership team was virtually unchanged over 20 years. It was a gift to work with him, and we were proud to be part of such a humane, thriving organization. “

Mary Hess (second from right in photo below)
Research and Development
Mary worked at Wheeler from 1970 to 2008.

“Dennis's greatest gift was giving people the support to grow and to be make sure the hard work had outcomes. He fostered that and he never lost it. He had that ability to make everyone around him know that they counted. That is critical when you work with a hard, hard, hard-working staff. It's critical they know that the person in charge has the ability to connect with the work we do."

John Mattas
Northwest Village School, Education Services
John worked at Wheeler from 1978 to 2012.

“Dennis’s most important talent—besides being very knowledgeable about working with young people and special education—was that he was a very good manager. If he thought you could do the job, he’d let you do it, and he’d support you. His view was ‘Tell me what you want to do, tell me what you need to do it, and go ahead and do it.’”

Joe Puzzo, MA (far left in photo below)
Special Services
Joe worked at Wheeler from 1973 to 2004.

"Dennis fills the room with his personality the minute he walks in. Through personal connection, humor and genuine interest, he had a way of connecting with staff that was amazing and often made it a point to walk through the building just to check in. His vision for meeting the needs of at-risk students helped shape the special education landscape in Connecticut and made our school stand out in terms of the comprehensive mental health services offered within an educational setting. He encouraged creativity, understood the importance of diversified funding and introduced the entrepreneurial mindset that continues today."

Michael Russo, Psy.D.
Vice President of Education and Early Childhood Services
Mike first began working at Wheeler in 1988.

Dennis with some members of his team. From left: Joe Puzzo, MA, David Berkowitz, PhD, Dennis Keenan, Jane Bourns, LCSW, Keith Davis, Mary Hess, Elaine Couture.

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