John Hench (June 29, 1908 – February 5, 2004) was an employee of The Walt Disney Company for more than sixty five years, an exceptionally long tenure which saw the rise of nearly every Disney animated feature and theme park.Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Hench attended numerous art and creative schools across the country, including the Art Students’ League in New York City, the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, and the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. Starting in 1939 as a story artist, he weaved his way through the animation department doing everything including backgrounds, layout and art direction, even effects animation and special effects. Walt Disney respected Hench as one of the studio’s most gifted artists and teamed him with Salvador Dalí on the animated short Destino, a project begun in 1945 that was not completed and released until 2003.
By 1954, Hench was in the studio’s live action department, as lead developer of the hydraulic giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, helping to win an Academy Award for Best Special Effects for the film.After working on that live action project, he moved to WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering), to design attractions for an innovative new entertainment medium; Disneyland. Since then, Hench has become synonymous with Disney theme parks, designing the iconic Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom and Tokyo Disneyland and creating the original groundbreaking designs for Space Mountain. Because of his resemblance to Walt Disney and his frequent visits to the Disney theme parks, he was often asked to sign autographs and pose for pictures with park visitors who thought they were meeting Disney himself. One of Hench’s most recognizable works is the well known Olympic Torch. Nearly all of the most recent versions have been modeled after his design for the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, California.
In addition to all of these lengthy achievements, Hench also was the “official portrait artist” of Mickey Mouse, painting the company’s official portraits for Mickey’s 25th, 50th, 60th, 70th, and 75th birthdays. Hench and his wife were both longtime devotees of the Hindu saint Ramakrishna and members of the Southern California Vedanta Society.
In 1990 he was awarded the prestigious Disney Legend award, the company’s highest honor, presented to him by Michael Eisner.Hench continued to maintain an office at Walt Disney Imagineering headquarters in Glendale, California and worked there daily up until a few weeks before his death. His name tag and 65-year service award are prominently displayed in the building’s lobby, and permanent tributes by fellow “Imagineers” line its hallways.
In early 2004, Hench died of heart failure after a brief hospitalization in Burbank, California.