SHERIDAN — Former state legislator and president of the Whitney Benefits board Tom Kinnison died Sunday at Sheridan Memorial Hospital after a battle with cancer. He was 70 years old.
Kinnison was diagnosed earlier this year and worked despite the illness, continuing to pursue projects with the aim of moving Sheridan forward.
“He was always two moves ahead of everyone,” Whitney Benefits executive director and Sheridan City Councilor Patrick Henderson said Monday morning.
Henderson added that Kinnison wanted to do things right and wanted to know what he — and his colleagues — were getting into, but he always wanted to see Sheridan moving forward.
“We’ll have to be like him,” Henderson said. “We’ll have to be leaders and keep propelling the community forward. He loved Sheridan very much.”
Kinnison, a longtime Sheridan businessman, served on the Whitney Board since 2000. In that role he helped shepherd a number of projects to completion, including the Whitney Rink at the M&M’s Center and new dorms and facilities at Sheridan College.
Prior to serving as a leader at Whitney Benefits, Kinnison served briefly on the Sheridan City Council before earning a seat in the Wyoming House of Representatives, where he served from 1979-1982. He was then elected to a seat in the Senate, where he served from 1983-1986 and 1989-2002.
Former Gov. Dave Freudenthal first met Kinnison in the Legislature, where many of the late man’s colleagues described him as a tough, sometimes intimidating, force for positive change.
“I would describe Tom as a true Wyoming original who got a lot done,” Freudenthal said Monday. “He was just remarkable.”
Freudenthal said while Kinnison certainly showed dedication to Sheridan County, he truly had the best interest of the entire state at heart. The former governor described Kinnision as having an “odd kind of charm” that included a drive unparalleled by others. He was “colorful” and “effective” even if sometimes that passion sounded tough to listeners and observers.
Former state Rep. Rosie Berger recalled Kinnison serving as a mentor to her, and many others, over the years. When Kinnison left the Legislature, Berger said many felt the sense that his were big shoes to fill. All who followed after him, she noted, had to work to live up to the standards Kinnison set in terms of ensuring Sheridan and Wyoming values were represented.
“Tom really has impacted many lives and many people don’t know that he was their hero,” Berger said.
Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, noted that Kinnison’s public service in the Legislature likely served as preparation for what he was able to accomplish as president of the Whitney Benefits board. Kinskey said Kinnison’s vision to diversify the foundation’s assets to include real estate helped spur growth of Sheridan’s downtown. In addition, Kinskey said Kinnison was instrumental in the development of the community’s parks and pathways.
Kinnison was a successful businessman, and Kinskey noted the leader did not push ahead for his own sake, but rather for the sake of future generations. Kinnison was instrumental not only in the growth of Sheridan College, but also for the economic growth of Sheridan County. His vision to bring light manufacturing to Sheridan helped recruit Vacutech to the area as well as company’s like Weatherby, who were impressed by the facilities and equipment available at Sheridan College, which Whitney Benefits and Kinnison played a role in acquiring.
“It is hard to overstate the role that Tom played in our community,” Northern Wyoming Community College District President Paul Young said via email. “He knew everybody and from his first cup of coffee in the morning until his last phone call at night was always connecting people, ideas and opportunities.
“People think of Tom first as an advocate for the college and that is certainly accurate — he’s been a key part of nearly everything going on out here for 20 years,” Young continued. “But he played a broader even more crucial role in the background of the community where he was forever moving opportunities forward and keeping them in front of key players. That’s where he’s really going to be missed.”
After 70 years of service to the Sheridan community and the state of Wyoming, Kinnison died Sunday surrounded by family. Services for the former legislator are pending. Kane Funeral Home has been entrusted with arrangements.