May 2003

Extraordinary is the Word
for John M. Senneff

by Joseph H. RADDER

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When a friend told John Senneff we would like to interview him for a Forever Young and Active article, he asked “Why me? I’m just an ordinary guy.”

Our answer: That’s what Living Prime Time’s personality articles are all about...ordinary people who do extraordinary things.

However, we found John Senneff to be anything but ordinary. Webster defines the word as “of a kind, expected in the normal order of events.” That certainly doesn’t fit John Senneff, whose life is filled with doing the unexpected. One certainly wouldn’t expect a person of a younger age to do all he does, no less a man who will be 79 in just a few months.

He runs three times a week whenever possible, and runs from three to five miles each time. Does he run in marathons? “I’ve tried to train for marathons,” he says, “but I have one leg that would go a marathon and another leg that’s had too many motorcycle accidents.” Amazingly, John still rides his motorcycle regularly, weather permitting. In the wintertime, John loves to go snowboarding. That’s the relatively new sport that utilizes a wide board something like a skateboard and has found widespread acceptance by the younger generation. “You go down the hill sideways (standing) on it” he says with a big smile which tells us how much he enjoys it. He was a skier, and still is. “But I do mostly snowboarding now.” Again, the unexpected from a man John Senneff’s age. Indeed, he is a snowboard instructor at the Tamarack ski center two days a week.

As if all that activity weren’t enough, John is an accomplished airplane pilot. He was a World War II fighter pilot with the Air Force’s 86th Fighter-Bomber Group in Italy, France and Germany. John retired from the Air Force as a Lieutenant Colonel after serving in the Reserves following his active duty days. On the wall in the Senneff’s dining room is a display of his World War II medals, the Distinguished Flying Cross, four or five air medals with what he calls “the normal battle stars.” His unit received two Presidential Citations as well.

Senneff’s love of flying carried over into civilian life as a hobby. He became a flight instructor, an activity he continues to this day. He flies his own plane and also flies gliders with the Niagara Soaring Club in Cambria, when his summer golf time allows.

His beloved dog Sandy, a handsome golden retriever, is always at his side, even in the airplane. He tells of a frightening experience when his plane’s carburetor iced up and he had to land in a farmer’s corn field. “The hardest part”, he says, “was taking off again after repairs. There was a 570 foot long lane just wide enough for the plane and it was anybody’s guess whether or not we’d be able to hit full throttle and get up enough speed to take off. But we did and we’re here to tell the story.”

John Senneff was born in Moline, Illinois, “the home of the John Deere tractor.” His mother, Clara, was a schoolteacher in Taylorville, Illinois. His father, George, was a high school football, swimming and basketball coach and athletic director in Moline. John tells us proudly, “he was so well-known that when they built a new high school they named the swimming pool after him.”

“Every summer, my father was a counselor at a boys’ camp in Minnesota,” John remembers, “and he took me along. So I spent about five summers paddling canoes all over northern Minnesota. He acquired his love of airplanes as a young lad thanks to his mentor, Vern Roberts, who was a frequent winner of air races.

In 1947, soon after the war, John married Mildred Cutler. They had four children...Mike, now age 53; Kathleen, 52; Bill, 48; and Carol 44. Mildred had an inoperable brain tumor and died in 1970. A very dificult time followed Mildred’s passing. His daughter, Carol, was age 12 at the time. “What does a single father do with a 12 year old daughter?” John asked. The answer was skiing. “That’s what started me skiing”, he says.

“That was eventful,” he jokes. “I ended up with another wife, two more kids, an airplane and a dog.” He married his present wife Diane Mudd, a skier and an airplane enthusiast, in 1974. Indeed they did have two children, Jimmy, 23, and Karyn, 27. There are two grandchildren as well.

By this time nothing should surprise you about John Senneff. But it may come as a surprise that John is also a rocket scientist. After graduating from the University of Illinois with a Masters degree in aero engineering, he spent 37 years at Bell Aerosystems, specializing in rocket combustion chamber design. A few years ago, the Air Force came out with a proposal to make a less expensive launch vehicle. Some people at Lockheed remembered a proposal John helped write in 1978 for an upgrade of the Agena rocket engine. They invited the successor research company to Bell to bid on the design for this engine. So John was called back out of retirement to work as a consultant on this project. As it turned out Senneff’s group won the bid for Lockheed, beating out all the leading rocket engine builders in the world. Unfortunately, the Air Force ran out of money about that time, so nothing beyond the prototype engines was ever built.

It never ceases to amaze us that there are so many Western New York people in John Senneff’s age group still so active and accomplishing so much. No wonder they stay forever young.

Joseph H. Radder is a freelance writer.


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