David Dennis retired from two careers spanning 40 years before deciding to pick up another vocation: elected public official.
At 74, Dennis is the oldest commissioner on the five-member Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners. In November, he was re-elected for his second four-year term representing District 3, the county’s western district that includes a big chunk of west Wichita and the smaller communities of Andale, Bentley, Cheney, Colwich, Garden Plain, Goddard, Mount Hope and Viola.
It’s the second elected seat Dennis has held since retiring from a 29-year career in the Air Force and 11 years with the Wichita Public Schools. His first was a four-year stint on the Kansas State Board of Education, which he was elected to in 2008.
From Kansas to Russia
Dennis’ office holds a couple of reminders of how he spent much of his Air Force career. The tip of a nuclear weapon sits on a windowsill. On one shelf sits the steering yoke of a Russian Tupolev Bear bomber. Dennis’ career spanned the buildup of arms between the U.S. and Russia and the eventual drawdown of that race.
He has several more pieces of nuclear memorabilia at home, Dennis said, a reminder of the times he spent pulling alerts in Minuteman missile silos and commanding missile units.
Dennis never intended to make the military his career, but he came of age when the U.S. was building up to the Vietnam War. After graduating from high school in Great Bend in 1964 and then Fort Hays State in 1968, Dennis decided to enlist before he was drafted. His plans to become a teacher were delayed by almost three decades.
The wedding date for Dennis and his high school sweetheart, Janet, was dictated by his call-up to duty. They ended up marrying sooner than planned, over Veterans Day weekend in 1968. The couple relocated 14 times in 29 years. As a registered nurse, Janet had a career well-suited to frequent moves.
As Dennis neared the end of his four-year enlistment, he was one of 100 airmen selected for an officer’s commission program for first-time enlistees with college degrees. He retired as a colonel.
“I felt at the end of my career, I had made a difference,” Dennis said.
Classrooms and cars
After returning to Kansas, Dennis became a teacher at Wichita North High School in 1999. Dennis’ oldest son, David, is a teacher at Wichita Northwest High School, while son Eric is a principal in the Conestoga School District in Nebraska.
“I was the last one in the family to go into teaching,” Dennis said.
He eventually became the school’s data leader, helping teachers interpret student data for better outcomes. Dennis also has a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma that he earned while in the Air Force.
In 2007, Dennis ran for a Wichita City Council seat and lost. The next year brought a successful campaign for the state’s education board. Before winning a spot on the county board, Dennis had served on the city’s District 5 Advisory Board for several years and also was on the city-county Metropolitan Area Planning Board. He ended up being in leadership positions on all those government boards.
“The military gave me an education on how to do leadership,” said Dennis, who completed a stint at the Air Force’s premier professional education facility, the Air War College.
Dennis decided to run in 2016 because he didn’t like the political divide he was seeing on the county board. A lifelong Republican, Dennis criticized the board’s majority Republican members at the time as being too ideologically driven and not listening to residents or advisory boards.
“This job is pretty nonpolitical and is about serving citizens, not political interests,” he said.
Outside work, Dennis kept up a passion dating back to Great Bend.
“When I was back in high school, the ’62 Corvette became the car of my dreams for life. I found a 1962 Corvette, and my son and I restored that. Then my wife wanted a 1962 Mustang convertible, so we restored that. We sold it to get a 1963 Corvette.”
Three Corvettes now sit in Dennis’ garage, including that 1962 Corvette and a newer-model 2014 Corvette. The latter was acquired as a trade for a 1965 restored Corvette. Dennis and his wife have crisscrossed the country in car trips with other Corvette enthusiasts.
‘They’re my generation’
During the pandemic, the commission’s role as the local board of health has become more important. Dennis said his biggest concern right now for seniors, who are at highest risk for COVID-19, is making sure that vaccines are available.
“They’re my generation, so I care about that,” he said.
Dennis hasn’t decided what he’ll do about running for office again in 2024, noting he’ll be 78 then.
“At some point, my wife would like me to retire so we can get a motor home and travel.”
Contact Amy Geiszler-Jones at email@example.com.