Chicago’s first en­vi­ron­ment com­mis­sioner

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY THOMAS FRISBIE, STAFF RE­PORTER tfris­ | @thomas­fris­bie

When Henry Hen­der­son grew up in a heav­ily in­dus­tri­al­ized area of Down­state Gran­ite City, he and his friends found they could light the wa­ter on fire that seeped into base­ments af­ter heavy storms. The ex­pe­ri­ence pushed him to­ward a ca­reer of pro­tect­ing the en­vi­ron­ment and pub­lic health.

Al­though he knew the lo­cal steel mill pro­vided jobs and was in­te­gral to the city’s econ­omy, Mr. Hen­der­son at a young age also be­came in­ter­ested in find­ing ways to pre­vent pol­lu­tion, said his sis­ter, Ann Tonks.

“He was drawn to find out how we make sure the en­vi­ron­ment does not suf­fer at the ex­pense of hu­man en­deavor,” Tonks said.

Mr. Hen­der­son, who was Mid­west di­rec­tor for the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil and a lead­ing ad­vo­cate for the en­vi­ron­ment, died Nov. 5 at his Evanston home af­ter a lengthy ill­ness. He was 66.

“He was con­sis­tently ded­i­cated to the pub­lic in­ter­est,” said M. Cameron “Cam” Davis, a long­time en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cate who was elected on Nov. 6 to the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Wa­ter Recla­ma­tion Dis­trict board. “He un­der­stood that to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment you had to un­der­stand both pol­icy and pol­i­tics, and he was able to mar­shal both for a cleaner en­vi­ron­ment.”

In the 1980s, Mr. Hen­der­son was staff di­rec­tor of Mayor Harold Wash­ing­ton’s Shore­line Pro­tec­tion Com­mis­sion. Af­ter tak­ing of­fice in 1989, for­mer Mayor Richard M. Da­ley picked him to be the first en­vi­ron­ment com­mis­sioner for the city of Chicago. Among his un­der­tak­ings as com­mis­sioner, he helped launch the city’s blue­bag re­cy­cling pro­gram, helped shut down il­le­gal garbage dumps and over­saw the Chicago Brown­fields Ini­tia­tive, an ef­fort to clean up aban­doned in­dus­trial sites. He also helped lead the fight to pre­serve the North Park Vil­lage Na­ture Cen­ter. In an email, Da­ley called Mr. Hen­der­son “a great leader dur­ing a vi­tal time in Chicago’s his­tory.”

“At a time when there was no model, Henry re­ally de­fined how ci­ties can func­tion as good en­vi­ron­men­tal mod­els,” said Bill Abolt, who suc­ceeded Mr. Hen­der­son as Chicago en­vi­ron­ment com­mis­sioner. “Henry un­der­stood that if you ad­dress prob­lems like re­cy­cling and cleanup of con­tam­i­nated prop­erty and cre­ate and en­hance open space, you not only make ci­ties more liv­able, you also make them more eq­ui­table and more com­pet­i­tive.”

One of his achieve­ments was the cre­ation of the Chicago Green­corps, a job-train­ing pro­gram that turned va­cant lots into com­mu­nity gar­dens and built planter me­di­ans around the city, Abolt said. Green­corps was part of his ef­fort to clean up un­der­served com­mu­ni­ties, he said.

“He un­der­stood you couldn’t build a sus­tain­able city if you didn’t take care of the most vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions,” Abolt said.

Mr. Hen­der­son also taught en­vi­ron­men­tal law and pol­icy at the Univer­sity of Chicago, and he was a se­nior fel­low at the Great Ci­ties In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Chicago.

“He was re­ally an hon­est and in­spir­ing leader,” said Joel Bram­meier, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Al­liance for the Great Lakes. “He was a smart, highly ed­u­cated guy just over­flow­ing with ideas.”

Mr. Hen­der­son earned de­grees from Kenyon Col­lege, Ox­ford Univer­sity, the Univer­sity of Chicago and Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in St. Louis. While at Kenyon Col­lege, he spent a sum­mer at the Pine Ridge In­dian Reser­va­tion in South Dakota be­cause of his in­ter­est in how Amer­i­can In­di­ans had de­vel­oped a cul­ture in har­mony with na­ture, an in­ter­est piqued by his many days spent as a child at the Field Mu­seum, Tonks said.

Be­fore join­ing the NRDC in 2007, he served as an as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral for the State of Illi­nois with a fo­cus on the en­vi­ron­ment.

In a state­ment, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, “[Mr. Hen­der­son’s] tenac­ity, abil­ity to bring all voices to the ta­ble, and con­cern for com­mu­ni­ties most im­pacted by en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges made a last­ing dif­fer­ence dur­ing his time as Chicago com­mis­sioner for en­vi­ron­ment.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in a state­ment, “With­out Henry and his dogged work at NRDC, we would have never been as suc­cess­ful at ad­dress­ing man­ganese pol­lu­tion in South­east Chicago or tak­ing on con­tam­i­na­tion is­sues from BP Whit­ing. His ded­i­ca­tion to leav­ing this planet bet­ter and cleaner for the next gen­er­a­tion will be long re­mem­bered.”

Mr. Hen­der­son also is sur­vived by his wife Jac­que­line and sons Ben­jamin and James.

Ser­vices will be pri­vate.


BILL ABOLT, who suc­ceeded Henry Hen­der­son as Chicago en­vi­ron­ment com­mis­sioner


Henry Hen­der­son en­joys a Chicago River boat tour in 2011.

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