Casey’s aim was true in field hockey — and politics
I sensed this was a young Vermonter with a bright future ahead of her, and sensed an opportunity to tie it to my own.
— Former Governor Jim Douglas
Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series catching up with student athletes from area high schools.
SOUTH BURLINGTON — Over the years being the youngest in a group has not held back Starksboro native Dennise Casey.
As a 13-year-old freshman at Mount Abraham Union High School Casey started at midfield for the Eagle field hockey team. After her second year at Mount Abe she was chosen as a Junior Olympian and played in a national tournament in North Carolina.
As a sophomore Political Science major at the University of Vermont she volunteered for Gov. James Douglas’s first campaign for governor. She became a statewide field director.
By 2006, the year Casey turned 26, she was Douglas’s campaign manager, communications director and deputy chief of staff.
Casey, now 39, said that rapid rise was not part of a master plan: She just did her jobs to the best of her ability and kept her eyes open.
“I’m not somebody who has a grand plan. I find plans are a good way to disappoint yourself, or wander down a path you find is not the right one,” Casey said. “I try to look for the opportunity, and seek it out, and along the way work as hard as I can so that I’ve demonstrated I’m ready for it.”
Douglas, now teaching at Middlebury College, said Casey earned those opportunities.
“She learned quickly. She could execute a plan. She interacted comfortably with people, most of whom were a lot older when she started,” Douglas said. “She’s the kind of person whose success I saw at the outset, and knew could assume increasing responsibility, so I was happy to give it her.”
Casey, a 1999 Mount Abe graduate, traces some of the traits that led to her success, including at her decade-old South Burlington consulting firm, Casey Inc., to her sports career.
“A few that applied to both sports and politics, certainly, are inner strength, perseverance, grit, loyalty, teamwork, and one that I focus a lot on now is the value of role models … my parents, my sisters, (Eagle field hockey Coach) Mary Stetson, for sure,” Casey said. “And just that awesomeness of winning and deep, deep pain of losing are good things to be practiced.”
Sports took root for Casey at her Starksboro home.
“Sports have always been a part of my family,” Casey said. “My mom was a Little League coach since I was a baby, so I sort of grew up around sports.”
She played Little League, and then softball in elementary school. Casey, better known for field hockey, played second base and used her quickness to hit leadoff for the Eagle softball team.
“I loved high school sports. I loved the coaches. I loved my teammates. Softball was an absolute joy,” she said.
But field hockey became her passion. Casey chose to play field hockey in sixth grade mainly because older sister Koran and younger sister Michaela did not.
“I was determined to play field hockey, and play it well, because at the time my sisters played soccer,” Casey said. “This was my very obvious middle-child way of distinguishing myself.”
She attended field hockey camps run by Lucy Pellegrini, played in middle school, and then made the varsity as 13-year-old freshman. About to turn 14, Casey was much younger than most of her teammates. But they made her feel welcome.
“Some of my teammates had already turned 18, so there was a big age gap for me, and they made the biggest deal out of my birthday. They gave me this hunter, blaze-orange beanie that they’d written Queenie on it. It was the Queenie Beanie,” she said. “And I never forgot that. It was a lesson of camaraderie and support. I felt so included and appreciated and supported.”
There were more lessons to come.
“We had secret pals during the season, and we’d give each other gifts and posters before the games, things like that, to try to create more of a community. Things like that really matter. It’s not just about how you act in practice or on the field, it’s how you treat each other as a team,” Casey said.
Stetson described Casey as “a very strong leader” who helped create the culture of teamwork and hard work that led to the program’s success in later years.
Stetson said Casey led by example and would explain what she had learned “in a way that kids understood and took her lead well.”
“She always practiced at 110%, so she always expected her teammates to practice that way so that we could always be prepared for competition,” Stetson said. “She used her experience at the Futures level to help kids realize it wasn’t just enough to go through a drill and perform it in mediocrity.”
On the field Casey cites winning an eight-overtime playoff game vs. U-32 and seeing her team at the Junior Olympics coming in second in that tournament as highlights.
But the Junior Olympics meant a lot more in other ways. First, it showed Casey what she could accomplish.
“That was really an incredible moment of validation for me as a young person of my hard work,” she said.
Her selection also helped Casey understand the level of support she had from family and community. She already knew her parents, Peg and Dennis Casey, were fully dedicated to their daughters’ athletic careers, but this commitment meant extra time and finances.
“My parents worked really hard to give me that opportunity, and I’m very grateful for that,” Casey said. “My parents worked really long, hard hours, but they never missed a game.”
But they couldn’t travel to North Carolina due to work obligations. Instead, Stetson went and cheered Casey on.
“Stets flew to North Carolina to be with me and support me,” Casey said. “Opportunities like this are wonderful. But really the lesson for me was the sacrifice these people made for me because they believed in me.”
POLITICS & MORE
At UVM Casey’s Starksboro roots also informed her choice of Political Science as a major. Her grandmother and mother had always been poll workers and served on the town’s board of civil authority, and at home town issues were common topics.
“When it was time to think what else interested me, politics was something that had always been there,” Casey said.
She looked for ways to turn that interest into a career, signing on as an intern for a semester with New Hampshire Rep. Charles Bass in Washington, D.C.
Upon her return, Jim Douglas was launching his first bid for governor. Casey already knew a bit about Douglas through Rep. Connie Houston and by attending Addison County GOP meetings with her father. She volunteered for his campaign. That turned into the job as campaign field director while she was a UVM junior.
“I just balanced school and this job. And he was elected, and I just finished my last semester, and the day after graduation I reported for duty in his office,” she said.
She worked as a policy and political assistant. Three years later she was his campaign manager, communications director and deputy chief of staff, remaining in the latter positions until 2009, taking a break to manage his 2008 campaign.
Douglas said Casey made a good first impression on him that proved to be correct.
“Even though just a college student she was very sophisticated, interested in the processes of politics and government. Sometimes you can get a sense of people from just an initial encounter, and that was the case with Dennise,” Douglas said. “I sensed this was a young Vermonter with a bright future ahead of her, and sensed an opportunity to tie it to my own.”
Casey appreciated the faith that Douglas placed in her.
“He always believed in me. He had very high standards. They were clear standards. I understood them, and I always felt very supported by him,” she said.
In August 2009 Douglas announced he would not run again, and Casey took another opportunity: For the 2010 election cycle she become the national field director for the Republican Governors Association, managing six campaigns around the country.
“It was an opportunity to expand my skills and to grow outside of Vermont, but also to stay connected to Gov. Douglas and to the team,” she said. “But I took that job knowing that it was a year-long job, and I commuted to D.C.”
She also knew all along, “I wanted to be here and make a contribution to Vermont.”
Casey Inc. was not in Casey’s plans when she returned to the South Burlington home she shares with her partner of 16 years, Neale Lunderville.
“I was back in Vermont turning 30 and unemployed, and for the very first time in my life unsure of what to do,” she said.
Casey started doing “project-based work for people and organizations that needed help,” including Green Mountain Power and a “natural gas start-up company.”
She thought she would do that until a job offer came along, and then the light dawned.
“I realized, wait a minute. This could be a thing,” she said, and her company was born.
Casey had developed varied expertise over the past decade, and Casey Inc. allowed her to put it to work.
“The best way to describe my company is we solve problems. And those problems are usually crisis-based, problem management-based, communications-focused. Where there’s an intersection between regulations and business is a sweet spot for me. If there’s a project you need to get going, I’m often called in to help with the strategy around that,” Casey said.
She said Casey Inc. has helped to build renewable energy projects, manage labor strikes, support education movements, increase health-care access, and manage reputations for individuals and organizations “when bad things happen.”
Casey Inc. also performs consumer research via polls and surveys, she said, and does “communications work,” including messaging for “media strategies around announcements” and “crisis communications.” At any given time, Casey said she has a dozen or more clients.
Casey said her work is satisfying because it mirrors what she most enjoyed in state government: helping people.
“I feel like I can help organizations and companies continue to solve problems. And a lot of the companies that I work for are doing really important work in Vermont,” she said. “And that really matters to me. So I feel like the work is really important and meaningful to the state.”
After watching Casey help solve problems for him for eight years, Douglas said he is happy that she is thriving doing so for others.
“I was blessed to have someone with such insight, energy and intelligence to work with me for so many years,” he said. “And now she’s succeeding on her own, and it’s great to see.”
Read about Casey’s effort to combat sexism in the media.
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