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Tom Huening walks away
August 13, 2012, 05:00 AM By Sue Lempert

It’s not every elected official who voluntarily leaves office mid-term when the issue is not health, family problems or bad publicity. Huening gave up his secure position as county controller because he wanted to concentrate on writing. He had an assistant waiting in the wings (Bob Adler, the newly appointed controller) who could easily take over the job. Huening has served in local government for 31 years, first as a member of the San Mateo County community college board (1981-86), then as a member of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors (1986-98) and finally as county controller (1998-2012). He has a pension and his health care costs are covered.

Huening is unique in so many ways. He is writing his second book on religion. The first, "Spiritual Choices: Putting the HERE in Hereafter” was published on line in 2007 and has sold about 300 copies. While he was raised as a Catholic and went to Catholic schools and colleges, his beliefs are mostly neutral on organized religion. "Since we really don’t know what the hereafter is,” he explained, "we better take advantage of the here.” And he certainly continues to live a full and exciting life.


Huening grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. He was one of 12 children and the oldest son. He was not a good student (girls) and worked after high school. He eventually attended DePaul University and then attended Navy flight training school in Pensacola.

"I liked speed and living on the edge,” he said.

He spent five years in the Navy, much of it during the Vietnam War where he flew training missions and provided targets. After he left the Navy he worked for TWA as a pilot flight engineer. He was furloughed by TWA for six-and-a-half years. He worked for Coldwell Banker in real estate in San Jose until he was called back by the airline. By then, he and his family had moved to Hillsborough and to San Mateo in 1985.


Huening is also one of the few successful Republican politicians in San Mateo County and the only Republican on the Board of Supervisors when he served with Democrats Tom Nolan, Anna Eshoo, Bill Shumaker, Mary Griffin and Mike Nevin. He ran as the Republican candidate for Congress in 1998 and lost to Eshoo. He says he is fiscally conservative but moderate on social issues. He refused to join San Mateo Rotary until they accepted women in 1987. The reason? He has four daughters.


And that brings us to the women in his life. Huening’s first serious girlfriend was when he was 16 years old and in high school. Fifty-five years later, they are still good friends. He married when he was 20 and a handsome fly-boy. He and his wife had four daughters but after 15 years of marriage the couple divorced but remained best friends. Later on, he married Denise DeVille, former head of SAMCEDA and an unsuccessful candidate for the Board of Supervisors. She lost to Rich Gordon. Huening said he and Denise remain good friends. He still retains his good looks and probably heads the list of the county’s most eligible bachelors with nine grandchildren.


Huening’s political career is also unique because twice he defeated an incumbent. In 1981, he was recruited by Eleanor Nettle and Bud Bostwick to run for the community college board against Bob Tarver. In 1998, he successfully beat Jerry Trias for the job of county controller. By then, the once poor student, had a master’s in business and a law degree.

Huening is pleased the supervisors appointed his assistant as his replacement. He supports the change to an appointed rather than an elected controller but feels the position still needs to be independent. He recommends a 10-year term during which the controller could not be removed except in a public process for cause. And now that Huening has retired from public office, does he see himself winding down? Absolutely not. Even though he just gave up running four to five miles a day he continues to be an avid cyclist and rides his bike at least 54 miles a week. He has set a goal of either walking/biking 25,000 miles in his lifetime. He is also in the midst of writing a third book, this one on John Kelly, a fellow Rotarian, former priest, Sierra high school teacher and head of Samaritan House. Huening may have walked away from his county job but he’s sprinting to circumvent the earth (That’s the 25,000 mile goal).

Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at

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