Chicago’s first en­vi­ron­ment depart­ment com­mis­sioner

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - OBITUARIES - By Bob Golds­bor­ough Bob Golds­bor­ough is a free­lance re­porter.

Henry L. Hen­der­son, Chicago’s first com­mis­sioner of the Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­ment who later ran the Mid­west of­fice of the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, was a highly vis­i­ble ad­vo­cate for cleaner air and wa­ter and also pushed for ac­tion on cli­mate change.

“He (was) long in­stru­men­tal in the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment here, long be­fore cities cared to ac­knowl­edge the need for such ini­tia­tives,” for­mer Mayor Richard M. Da­ley said in a state­ment. “I have al­ways been proud of the fact that we were the first big city to cre­ate a Depart­ment of the En­vi­ron­ment, and we’re all for­tu­nate that he was able to pas­sion­ately serve as its first com­mis­sioner.”

Hen­der­son, 66, died of com­pli­ca­tions from lung can­cer on Nov. 5 at his home, said his sis­ter, Ann Tonks. He had been an Evanston res­i­dent.

Born and raised in the down­state steel town of Gran­ite City, near St. Louis, Hen­der­son earned a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in phi­los­o­phy and the­ol­ogy from Kenyon Col­lege in 1974 and af­ter­ward headed to Eng­land, where he re­ceived a mas­ter’s de­gree in phi­los­o­phy from Ox­ford Univer­sity.

Hen­der­son moved to Chicago in 1976 and for three years pur­sued a doc­tor­ate from the Univer­sity of Chicago. After find­ing him­self drawn more to pol­i­tics and law, Hen­der­son moved to St. Louis and earned a law de­gree at Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in 1982.

Hen­der­son worked as an as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral and then took a job with Chicago’s Law Depart­ment, where he worked on en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. He also headed the city’s Com­mis­sion on Shore­line Pro­tec­tion un­der Mayor Harold Wash­ing­ton in 1987.

In 1992, Da­ley tapped Hen­der­son to be com­mis­sioner of the city’s Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­ment. Hen­der­son’s early ar­eas of fo­cus in­cluded clamp­ing down on il­le­gal dump­ing on va­cant lots in neigh­bor­hoods and keep­ing pres­sure on ComEd dur­ing an era of “rolling black­outs.”

Hen­der­son re­cruited Bill Abolt, who later suc­ceeded Hen­der­son as com­mis­sioner of the Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­ment, to City Hall. Abolt re­called Hen­der­son’s work on il­le­gal dump­ing in neigh­bor­hoods.

“Peo­ple can say, ‘Well, what about Su­per­fund sites?’ but he un­der­stood that il­le­gal dump­ing was an af­front to peo­ple across the city, par­tic­u­larly peo­ple of color, and that the only way to re­ally im­prove the en­vi­ron­ment of the city was to make sure you did it for ev­ery­body,” Abolt said. “He had a unique set of per­spec­tives and a unique and en­gag­ing lead­er­ship style that re­ally cre­ated some un­be­liev­able suc­cess and a group of peo­ple who fol­lowed him who had that im­pact on the city for a long time.”

Hen­der­son dou­bled down on crack­downs on il­le­gal dump­ing after the fed­eral Op­er­a­tion Sil­ver Shovel in­ves­ti­ga­tion in 1996 re­vealed how al­der­manic bribes opened the door to some il­le­gal dump­ing, in­clud­ing a 70-footh­igh dump at the cor­ner of Roo­sevelt Road and Kil­dare Av­enue. In the wake of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which ul­ti­mately sent sev­eral al­der­men to fed­eral prison, Hen­der­son and the city’s Law Depart­ment pro­posed stiffer fines and jail time for com­pa­nies caught dump­ing con­struc­tion waste in res­i­den­tial ar­eas.

“This kind of at­tack on a com­mu­nity in the past was not con­sid­ered the crime that it is,” Hen­der­son told the Tri­bune in 1996. “Dumpers have to get the mes­sage that they have to pay the price.”

In a state­ment, Mayor Rahm Emanuel noted that 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.”

After leav­ing the city’s Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­ment in 1998, Hen­der­son joined the Great Cities In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Chicago as a se­nior fel­low in an en­vi­ron­men­tally ori­ented re­search and ad­min­is­tra­tive po­si­tion. He left UIC in 2000 to start his own firm, Pol­icy So­lu­tions Ltd.

In 2007 the New York City-based in­ter­na­tional non­profit en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy group Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil hired him to open a Mid­west of­fice. NRDC Pres­i­dent Rhea Suh called Hen­der­son trans­for­ma­tive to the NRDC’s mis­sion in the Mid­west, as well as a ter­rific men­tor.

Hen­der­son led a “re­ally un­par­al­leled im­pact that we’ve been able to have in the Mid­west over­all,” Suh said.

“It’s tough to un­der­stand that many na­tional en­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions are usu­ally based on one coast ver­sus the other coast, and the leap of faith and con­vic­tion that we made in want­ing to deepen our roots started with Henry and it blos­somed into what we also hoped it would — an of­fice with both a deep con­nec­tion and in­flu­ence both with what was hap­pen­ing in the city of Chicago and in the state of Illi­nois, and we have ex­panded that work to fo­cus on Ohio, Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin.”

In his state­ment, Emanuel noted that Hen­der­son’s time at the NRDC “was spent hold­ing pol­luters, gov­ern­ments, and yes, even City Hall, to im­prove the air and wa­ter around us. Chicagoans and all Mid­west­ern­ers owe a debt of grat­i­tude to Henry for his lead­er­ship and ser­vice.”

Abolt said Hen­der­son “turned around peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of the cities and their en­vi­ron­men­tal model.”

“He was able to turn around that com­mon per­cep­tion that cities were dirty places that the en­vi­ron­ment was sep­a­rate from,” Abolt said. “He saw the city as a great en­vi­ron­men­tal model where you couldn’t ig­nore en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges — you had to solve them. And at the time Henry started at the Depart­ment of the En­vi­ron­ment, it was the idea of the mayor, but the model of how you would ac­tu­ally de­liver an en­vi­ron­men­tal agenda to the city was not ac­tu­ally de­fined in any real, com­pre­hen­sive and sys­tem­atic way, and Henry took after it with en­ergy and in­tel­lect that made peo­ple want to fol­low him.”

Hen­der­son also is sur­vived by his wife of al­most 20 years, Jac­que­line; and two sons, James and Ben.

Ser­vices are pri­vate.

LEATHEM PHOTOGRAPHY

Henry L. Hen­der­son was a highly vis­i­ble ad­vo­cate for cleaner air and wa­ter.

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