Debbie Hennessy, Cal State Official Dubbed ‘the Duchess,’ Dies at 80

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

In 1943, a child was left on the steps of a church in West Falls Church, Va. Taken in by nuns, she was raised with little knowledge of the outside world.

She had to perform chores like scrubbing the convent’s statues. When she was 12, she tried running away with two girls but was caught. At 14 she became a ward of the State of New York and lived with seven foster families over two years. In one home she befriended a collie named Sheila. The dog remained one of her few fond childhood memories.

When she turned 16, Debbie Hennessy was finally released into society as an independent young woman, and she wasted no time in taking hold of her life. Perhaps because of the adversity she had faced growing up, she was drawn to social work and community service.

Ms. Hennessy worked with an antipoverty and housing advocacy organization in New Haven, Conn., in the 1960s. Moving to Pittsburgh, she engaged in community outreach for the mayor’s office. Later, she settled in Long Beach, Calif., where she became an administrator for the California State University’s Academic Senate, working there for 25 years and becoming its executive director before retiring in 2007.

“She built an incredible life for herself,” her grandson Sam Levin said. “She knew what it was like to grow up with nothing, so she wanted everyone to have everything.”

Ms. Hennessy was 80 when she died of complications of Covid-19 on Jan. 10 in a Long Beach hospital, Mr. Levin said.

Deborah Theresa Wong was born on Sept. 7, 1940, in Brooklyn. Her parents, Alice Moy and Dick Fay Wong, had immigrated from China in the 1930s. It was her father who, for reasons not altogether clear, had left her at the church in Virginia when she was 3, to be educated at an all-girls school operated on the premises. Few other details of her early years are known.

“It was a very sheltered childhood,” her grandson said. “Most of the other children were white, so she didn’t even know she was Chinese for a good portion of her early life.”

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At 14, Debbie was turned over to the care of a priest in New York and was soon placed with her first foster family. She graduated from Eastchester High School in Westchester County when she was 16 and briefly attended the City College of New York. She later met Jack Tien, an engineer, and they married, had two children and eventually moved to Pittsburgh. The marriage ended in divorce in 1966.

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    In Pittsburgh she met Tom Hennessy, who worked in the communications department of the mayor’s office; like her, he had been given up by his birth parents. They married in 1971 and founded an alternative weekly newspaper, The Pittsburgh Forum. He edited the paper while she helped manage its business operations. (It closed several years later.)

    When Mr. Hennessy was hired as a columnist for The Press-Telegram in Long Beach, the couple moved there in the early 1980s.

    She became a fixture in his columns, known to readers as “the Duchess.” He portrayed her as a grande dame while chronicling the everyday events of her life. One typical column had the headline “Kind Memorial staffers make Duchess’ knee surgery more than bearable.”

    Together, they ran local charities like “Send-a-Kid-to-Camp” and “Operation Kids,” which provided toys and school supplies to children in Iraq.

    Mr. Hennessy died in 2016. In addition to Mr. Levin, Ms. Hennessy is survived by a son, John Tien; a daughter, Jackie Tien; two stepdaughters, Patty Tomashefsky and Diana Rousseau; and nine other grandchildren and step-grandchildren.

    Ms. Hennessy was prominent in Long Beach thanks to her husband’s columns and her good deeds, making her death front-page news in The Press-Telegram.

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