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James H. M. Henderson Dies at Age 92

On Saturday, December 12, 2009 a memorial service for Dr. James Henry Meriwether Henderson, was held at Tuskegee University Chapel in Tuskegee, Alabama.  Dr. Henderson passed away on December 3, surrounded by his devoted family and loving wife in Glen Burnie, Maryland, after a brief illness.  Henderson was a third generation Falls Church resident, whose family could trace their roots to before the area before the revolutionary war.  obit

On Saturday, December 12, 2009 a memorial service for Dr. James Henry Meriwether Henderson, was held at Tuskegee University Chapel in Tuskegee, Alabama.  Dr. Henderson passed away on December 3, surrounded by his devoted family and loving wife in Glen Burnie, Maryland, after a brief illness.  Henderson was a third generation Falls Church resident, whose family could trace their roots to before the area before the revolutionary war.

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James H. M. Henderson (Photo: Courtesy Ed Henderson)

James H. M. Henderson, Ph. D. was an internationally known plant physiologist.  Most of his teaching and research years were spent at Tuskegee University at the George Washington Carver Research Foundation, where he was director for several years. He spent several tours of research activity, in both the U.S. and foreign countries. He was actively involved in numerous scientific organizations and has been a prolific contributor to scientific journals. Dr. Henderson began mentoring young students into careers in the biological and allied sciences during his senior years. This activity, he commented, has “kept me young beyond my chronological age.” He retired from the university in 2001 after 54 years of service.

“Jimmy,” as he was affectionately called, was born after midnight on August 10, 1917, the second son of Edwin Bancroft Henderson and Mary Ellen Meriwether, in Falls Church, Virginia. This small town afforded him the advantages of growing up on a farm. His childhood days were happy and busy with duties consisting of taking care of the chickens, feeding them, collecting eggs, and other small chores. As a teenager, he was responsible for milking the Guernsey cow.   It was these early experiences living in a rural area that fueled, his academic interests in plants and animals.  Jimmy and his brother, Edwin, attended school with their mother, Mary Ellen Henderson from ages one year to six years old, where she taught and was principal in a little two-room frame schoolhouse.  Although, not officially students, they were given a strong academic foundation   The brothers formal education began in the District of Columbia, where their father taught. After graduating from Dunbar High School, he completed a B.S. degree in biology at Howard University. Graduate years were spent at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he earned his Mh.P and Ph.D. in plant physiology. During the war years, he was accepted as a junior chemist at Badger Ordnance Works (Baraboo, Wisconsin) to work on the production of smokeless powder. He continued employment in the national defense effort by being accepted to a wartime project (testing toxic gases for gas warfare) at the University of Chicago. In the spring of 1945, he drove his beloved 1931 Model A Ford to Tuskegee, where he began a teaching and research position. The Model A was purchased used in 1938 and was one of his greatest pleasures, taking his family for drives and participating in parades and festivals right up until Henderson stopped driving about a year ago.  At Tuskegee, he thoroughly enjoyed his work and developed genuine relations with his students. Rarely did he forget a name.

His postdoctoral appointment at California Institute of Technology was a professional highlight as well as the beginning of a family life. In 1948, he married his childhood sweetheart, Betty Alice Francis.

After moving to Pasadena, California for the CalTech appointment, two daughters, Edith Ellen and Dena RoseAlice, were born before he moved his family back to Tuskegee, where two sons, James Francis, Edwin Bancroft, II were born. Raising a family in the segregated south presented challenges that he faced squarely. Jimmy was a social and political activist and leader.  For over fifty years, he directed the activities of the local and regional boy scouts troops.  He played a major role in the desegregation of public schools in Macon County, Alabama.

Jimmy had a great sense of travel and adventure. In 1962, he took a sabbatical leave to do research at Le Phytotron Laboratory at Gif-sur-Yvette, France. The entire family spent that year experiencing the European culture through travel and school. Other research opportunities led him to such places as Russia, Hawaii, and South Africa. He spent six months in Ibadan, Nigeria in 1986.   No matter how far he No matter how far he traveled, the road always led back to Highland Beach, Maryland, where he enjoyed the summers with family and friends. Activities included crabbing, fishing, boating and canoeing.

Jimmy also enjoyed writing letters to the editor, photography and was a member of the Enology and Optimist Clubs in Tuskegee, AL. He was also passionate about his birthplace and family home in Falls Church, VA.  When developers approached him in the early 1980’s about selling the land, he challenged them to make a “fair offer” for the home his father had built, suggesting  “no amount of money could pay for the fond memories of my boyhood home!”  In November, 1993 after much research and constant letter writing by Henderson, with support from the Historical Commission, the Henderson House, , located at 307 S. Maple Ave., was designated a historic site by the city of Falls Church.  Ever involved, he was instrumental in the establishment of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation in 1997, and kept abreast of city events.  In 2005, when the new middle school was named in honor of his mother, Mary Ellen Henderson, he was present.  When the portrait of his mother for the new school, by famous artist Simmie Knox was unveiled he made his way to the ceremony.  He particularly enjoyed talking to superintendent of schools Dr. Lois Berlin, and  would call her when he had a question about the school.  He also enjoyed  talking and writing to the middle school students.  In 2007 led a group of the students on a tour of the traveling exhibit, Mary Ellen Henderson.  In 2007, he was presented with the Living Legacy Award by Tinner Hill  Heritage Foundation, for his role in preserving the history of early black basketball history.  It was his habit to call and query, “so what’s happening in Falls Church.”  Once, when son, and daughter-in-law decided to ask about various long gone landmarks in Falls Church, he answered politely for several minutes.  Finally, he let out a big sigh and asked earnestly, “well, don’t you have any ninety year olds up in Falls Church who tell you about this ???” Everyone exploded in laugher.  He remained interested, interesting and alert until the very end.  An avid Redskins fan, he would ask from his hospital bed, “what’s the score, who’s playing?”  One of the highlights of his last days was attending the first winning Redskins game of the season.   He will be missed sorely.

As a way of honoring him, contributions may be made to the James H.M. Henderson Memorial Scholarship Fund established at Tuskegee University. They may be made payable to the James H. M. Memorial Scholarship fund and mailed to:

James H. M. Henderson Memorial Scholarship Fund

C/O Nikki G. Henderson

P.O. Box 6117

Falls Church, VA.  22040