It’s an awful thing to see suffering and know there’s nothing you can do to make it stop. The first time Sean Hannigan ’18 encountered that unbearable helplessness, he knew he couldn’t feel that way again. From then on, he’d find a way to help – he’d do everything in his power. He’d do whatever it takes.
He was just 6 years old – too little to help the man in the street. He didn’t have the skills to do whatever he needed to do. He didn’t even know what needed to be done. All he knew was the man was hit by a car, and now he was in pain.
“It’s OK, Sean – he’s getting the care he needs,” his mom told him at the Chinese restaurant, where she was trying to calm him down over a cup of tea. She’d stopped the car at the scene, made sure help was on the way, but she couldn’t console her precious, kind-hearted little boy. “It isn’t up to you to fix this – no one expected you to do anything.”
But Sean expected it of himself. It was the right thing to do. You help people in need – you just do. That much Sean knew from the very beginning. And to help as many people as he could, he knew something else: He had a lot to learn.
Sean may have been the youngest of the family, but he always had an old soul. Despite the doting adoration from his two older sisters and loving parents, Sean was the nurturer and the warrior – always concerned for others, always standing up for the downtrodden. It didn’t matter if he was one of the smallest kids in his class, he didn’t think twice about confronting the bullies in his school for picking on his classmates.
“He’s just always been that way,” says his mom, Sherry Hannigan. “He just has loving-kindness in him, and he shares it with everyone. And he does it like he does everything: at 100 miles an hour. There’s no in between.”
Between his kind heart and his innate moral compass, doing the right thing and helping others came easy to Sean. A little more difficult for the eager altruist: finding the patience to grow up so he could be big enough and strong enough to help strangers on the street. Dressing up as a police officer for Halloween just wasn’t cutting it – he wanted to be a cop now.
“His nemesis has always been himself in that his expectations for himself are always far above not what he can actually achieve, but what he can achieve right then,” his mother says. “He’s the kid who goes into class on the first day and gets upset with himself because he doesn’t already know the stuff.”
All he could do was keep on learning. As Sean’s impatience spilled over into his appetite for knowledge, it eventually led to an obsession with all things science. He spent days upon days sitting in the library, soaking up everything he could about animals and the biological world. “Then it just transitioned from being strictly biology to the natural earth sciences, and then chemistry and mathematics,” he says. “It’s just the way my brain likes to work.”
The truth is, Sean’s brain just likes to work. He’s got this unquenchable thirst for learning that only gets thirstier the more he learns. As a kid, it’s what compelled him to read the entire set of encyclopedias, cover to cover. As an adult, it’s what drives him to take a deeper look at every … little … thing.
Nothing is safe from Sean’s curiosity. Not even beer.
“I brew my own beer, so I get to cultivate my own yeasts and play around with the esters and ketones and everything else – all the little components – to try to perfect my favorite strain of yeast,” he says. “Just tweaking every bit about it: So, ‘OK, if I change it by three degrees, does that change the amount of sweetness to something more complex or something more simple?’”
His questions are always followed by another question – not because the answers aren’t satisfying, but because the questions are.
“With every question, he makes these connections that make him dig even deeper,” says John Creed, associate professor of political science at the College, where Sean would come to study public health. “There’s always more to figure out and more to ask about. He has a capacity for continual curiosity – he just keeps seeking out more information. And he has the ability to apply what he learns and make connections in other areas of his own life.”
You can’t confine Sean’s learning. Not to one question, not to one answer, not to one topic. His is the kind of learning that doesn’t fit neatly into the pages of a book – it can’t be bound between the A and the XYZ volumes of the encyclopedia. It doesn’t adhere to those kinds of constraints.
Raising the Sails
At first, Sean hated going out on the water. He’d rather go below and sit in the cabin than be out there skimming across that slippery space where the water meets the sky.
“Being on a boat didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me – I just didn’t have any interest,” says Sean, who was born in California and spent his childhood in Tucson, Ariz., before his family moved to Annapolis, Md. “I always joke that I’m just a desert rat at heart.”
But that rat eventually found its sea legs. And, as the story goes, we have John Maliszeski, Yuengling and maybe Jimmy Buffet to thank for that. Maliszeski, the Hannigans’ neighbor in Annapolis, was a middle-aged, rugged Polish guy with a big,
heavy keelboat and – as far as Sean could tell – only one song on his playlist.
“It was always ‘Margaritaville,’” says Sean with a laugh. “Literally, that’s it.”
Maliszeski had invited the then 14-year-old Sean to come out and join his crew for a Wednesday night race, and – after they’d raced the super-slow boat around some cans on the Magothy River for a couple of hours – Maliszeski cranked up the radio, ripped open a bag of Utz pretzels and offered Sean an ice-cold Yuengling: “Do you think your parents would mind?”
“I was like, ‘Of course not! I’m a responsible 14-year-old!’”
laughs Sean. “It kept me coming back! I was like, ‘All right! See y’all next week!’”
After a while, Sean didn’t need the extra incentive. And, before he knew it, he was no longer just watching from the back of
“Suddenly, now I’m trimming, now I’m doing this and that, and other people were asking for crew, and I jumped boats,” he says. “It was just kind of like the fuse had been lit at that point.”
And not just for Sean – now that the word was out that he was a lightweight crewmember with some skills, he was in high demand.
“I would get all these calls from these grown men asking if Sean could come out – it was a battle for who could get him first,” laughs Sherry. “These 50- and 60-year-old men were his peers – any other kid would have been bored to tears, but Sean was born this old soul. His destiny was set at this point.”
Sean learned everything about sailing that he could, even taking a job as a dock assistant at the Annapolis Harbor Master, but it’s the lessons about patience, adaptability and fortitude that have mattered the most.
“Sailing informs everything I do,” he says. “It really ties into everything in my life – and I inevitably end up meshing sailing with the different things going on in my life. Every time I’d go out, sailing would give me another life lesson – or at least present a challenge that I could then kind of lay my own problems onto. You’re dealing with forces that are totally out of your control, with forces that are invisible. You’re using these principles to try to make it work for you, so it makes it very easy to turn it into a metaphorical lesson.”
He knew firsthand that life wasn’t always smooth sailing – that there are storms we have to weather, and sometimes we’re thrown off course. They may have been metaphorical out on the water, but back on land, these life lessons were getting all too real.