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Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016 12:18 am

A dreamer who got things done

EARL “WALLY” HENDERSON April 5, 1931-April 18, 2016

EARL “WALLY” HENDERSON
If Wally Henderson had had his druthers, he would have been an astronaut.

The first person in his family to go to college, Henderson came home to Springfield from the University of Illinois in the spring of 1950 to proud parents who had invited friends over. What, he was asked, are you studying in college? Aeronautical engineering, Henderson answered, which resulted in the conclusion that he wanted to design airplanes.

“And I said no, I wanted to be the first man on the moon, which is exactly the right answer – it’s what I meant,” Henderson recalled during a 2010 interview conducted as part of an oral history project featuring University of Illinois alumni.  “As those folks departed, my mother said, ‘Here, sit down, your dad and I want to talk to you for a moment.’”

Henderson’s fledgling career as a moonwalker was over before it began, and not due to parents who advised him that it is sometimes best to hold one’s tongue. Rather, Henderson credited laziness and a fondness toward the opposite sex for sending him on his path to fame.

The frat house where he lived as a freshman was a long, often cold, walk from engineering classrooms, Henderson recalled in the 2010 interview. And a wind tunnel for aeronautical contraptions was only available on Saturday nights, which also happened to be date nights for fraternity members. So it was that Henderson asked what other major would accept the credits he’d already earned. Architectural engineering, a counselor suggested.

“And that’s how I became an architect,” Henderson said.

It was no given that Henderson would go on to become one of Springfield’s most acclaimed building designers. He was known for saying that he had no intention of returning to the capital city, where he graduated from Springfield High School, once he got a college diploma, and he initially made good on his wish. After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1954, he moved to Indianapolis, where he landed a job at an engineering firm that ended when he was drafted into the Army and sent to Korea. When his military service ended, he earned a master’s degree at the University of Illinois, then moved to Denver. Don Ferry, whose brother-in-law had been a friend in high school, got in touch and asked him to return to Springfield. Like Henderson, Ferry was an architect. The two made a deal.

“You quit your job, I’ll quit my job, we’ll open an office – and Springfield needs higher education and a bunch of other things,” Henderson recalled in his 2010 interview. “(T)he whole thing we said was, ‘We’re not competing with anybody. We’re going to bring contemporary architecture to Springfield, Illinois.’”

And so the pair did, teaming up to design such landmarks as the State Journal-Register building on Ninth Street, the Public Affairs Center at University of Illinois Springfield and the Willard Ice Building, which houses the Illinois Department of Revenue. Henderson called it a horizontal skyscraper.

Henderson is, perhaps, most famous for the reconstruction of the Old State Capitol during the 1960s, when preservation of historic buildings wasn’t common. He and Ferry figured out a way to dismantle the building, move the pieces to the state fairgrounds, build a library and a parking garage underground, then reassemble the Capitol on the ground above. It was a project Henderson cherished throughout his life.

In 2008, when the U.S. Mint was set to make a penny that featured Abraham Lincoln holding a book, Henderson, then a member of the Illinois Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission set up to help plan observances of the Great Emancipator’s 200th birthday, thought that a depiction of Lincoln standing outside the Old State Capitol would be better. And he didn’t hold back, calling on U.S. Mint officials and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin to tell them exactly what he thought.

“I said, ‘You asked me to be an adviser, I’m advising you that you’re screwing Illinois with this coin,’” Henderson told the State Journal-Register in 2008. And so the design was changed to feature Lincoln outside the building where he had delivered his House Divided Speech that helped propel him to the presidency.

It was classic Henderson, whose smile, audacity and powers of persuasion were infamous. Consider his first encounter with his wife, Brynn, whom he met during the 1970s when both were married to others. She was playing ice hockey at a mothers game organized as a fundraiser before sons played a match. He came over to the boards and started flirting, Brynn recalls, remarking on how much he admired her orange socks.

“Then I found out he flirted with everybody,” Brynn Henderson said. Years passed before the two began dating. After 14 years of dates, they finally tied the knot in 2000.

When Henderson dreamed, he dreamed big. As a youth, he wanted to be a U.S. senator, and he’d take dates to the State Capitol to watch the General Assembly in action, Brynn says. Railroad relocation in Springfield was a passion in his twilight years and, while he held no formal role in the project, he was quick to say what he thought: The idea of moving tracks from Third Street to 11th Street was terrible. Instead, he urged, move all the tracks outside Springfield and completely bypass the city. It didn’t matter when Jim Moll, project manager who works for Hanson Professional Services, told him that getting a permit was impossible, the idea was prohibitively expensive and the railroads would never agree.

“For Wally, these were just flimsy excuses,” Moll recalls. “He said the problem was we just weren’t thinking big enough.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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