Most recently having the title President Emeritus, for three decades the Ohio native held positions as an educator and administrator. Many recall his days in the classroom as a leadership teacher, but his exemplary guidance beyond the confined walls with lessons about life and valuing one’s heritage were paramount.
His mere presence was a blessing to all he came into contact with because he represented hope and possibility. During a time when there were so few African-American male teachers and role models at Catholic high schools in urban communities, it was life affirming to see a strong presence, strolling the hallowed halls on Thekla Ave. Though Henderson’s address changed when the school made history by building a $32 million new campus on Spring Ave. in 2003, everything about him remained the same. He was a faith-filled man with a sharp wit for comedy. He had the uncanny ability to make his students learn and laugh because, above all else, most can attest that his fun-loving personality was incredibly infectious. He was more than an educator for any student who came into that building; he was a father figure, who directed us with his tough love.
Possessing sociology degrees from Xavier University (Cincinnati) and St. Louis’ Washington University, Henderson was a master when it came to interacting with others. A man of action, he did not simply tell you how much he loved being Black but he showed it every day of his life. When the new campus was built, he made certain the art and statues adorning the hallways were by, for, or about African Americans. Paintings and religious figures, including Black Jesus and the Stations of the Cross, were prominently displayed throughout the building. He told me it was important to instill racial pride in students by allowing them to see themselves reflected in their environment. Henderson even invited renowned scholar, Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu, author of the national bestseller Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys, to visit the high school and speak with students. Not only was Henderson proactive about mentoring his own, but he was equally passionate about providing guidance to those who attended schools without African-American leaders.
I was invited to be the keynote speaker at a benefit gala for CRCP in 2014. Prior to the evening’s festivities, Henderson made it a point to have me address the student body earlier in the day before personally driving me to the television station to conduct two interviews about the event.
“I never wear this blazer much but for some reason, something told me to put it on this morning,” Henderson told me as we got out of his car to head into the television network's lobby. Once there, we bumped into St. Louis Post-Dispatch pop music critic Kevin C. Johnson. He told Henderson how he had a few close friends who graduated from CRCP and often spoke about him. “It’s nice to finally meet you,” said Johnson as he shook Henderson’s hand. Johnson then asked, “So, you’re both here for interviews?” Henderson said, “No. I just drove her here. She is scheduled to be interviewed.” Without missing a beat, Johnson said, “But you’re the president! They should talk to you as well!” True to his laid back style and calm demeanor, Henderson shrugged it off. Before we knew it, Johnson made a mad dash back into the studio. A short while later he returned and we were informed that Henderson would be joining me for the second interview. Henderson looked surprised. With a smile, he told me, “In all the years that I’ve been at Ritter, we have not received this much coverage for an event and I have never been on television to talk about the school. Thank you.” I was in disbelief yet profoundly proud that we would share this platform to talk about CRCP together. That interview was definitely a crowning moment for us both. He was happy and so was I, but little did either of us know that this appointed time would signal his swan song.
We talked a few months after the gala and he rocked my world by revealing that he was leaving the school but would serve as emeritus. It was bittersweet for him yet he candidly told me, “I’m no spring chicken. I can’t do this forever.” His greatest concern was for the young men at the school. “They see strong female role models in education all the time,” he told me. “They need to see more faces that look like them in leadership positions to show them how to be a man and how to survive as a Black male in this society. That is so important. That is my hope.”
Jason Merritt had no problems conveying how much Henderson meant to him. “I remember as a freshman that only three of us males out of maybe 30 or so had a passing grade to start the year,” explained Merritt, a 1998 graduate of CRCP. “He called us all to a room and said, ‘Not on my watch will I see you all throw your lives away. Life is not a game.’ Some words were kind while other words were more stern. Some of us listened and some of us did not. I will never forget that day. To show the leadership and compassion he expressed was like no other. To Mr. Leon Henderson, I THANK YOU for saving me that day, because I was one of those kids who was in danger of failing by playing around. But, I listened. I realized how you and others truly cared.”
Last year former students and colleagues gathered for a prayer service in St. Louis at Henderson’s church, St. Alphonsus "Rock" Liguori Catholic Church. During this time his battle with a progressive neurodegenerative disease, ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, was publicly disclosed. A few weeks later he moved to Louisiana to be with his family. He spent his last days there and at one point he was in a skilled-care facility, unable to talk. Quite difficult for any of us to fathom silence from the man who could make people laugh until they cried. It seems pretty unfair for silence to swallow a man whose words of wisdom inspired, encouraged and motivated the masses in and out of classrooms.
Folks, this is the news flash. None of us are here forever. The mind is powerful and we must remember this stalwart man at his best. I am sure that is what he would want from us. Yes. Leon Henderson is gone physically but his spirit will never die as long as there is a CRCP student alive in this world who remembers his name. We are whole, we are better and we are leaders because of him. He showed us how to dream, how to open our eyes and how to dare go after it. We are family, forever bonded as “Ritter Critters,” because of him. We are lions and we roar.
A painting with the saying “Miles Christi Sum,” which means I am a soldier of Christ, covers the wall at CRCP. On it is an image of Jesus hanging on the cross with a roaring lion behind him. Following a personal tour of the school, Henderson looked at the picture and told me, “Even on the battlefield, the lion will protect you.” I believe this courageous educator did this for every student he touched. He is with us in our minds and in our hearts. We are tasting tears, but when they dry and morning comes, each day thank Mr. Henderson, “Hen,” for being in our lives and for being a soldier in that 2 percent.
DocM.A.C. signing off. Keep the faith and always trust the process. #OnwardUpward
Note: A public memorial service will take place at the CRCP gym on Saturday, March 5, at 2:00 p.m. Let's show up and show out for his honor.