Ron Rash writes about the places he knows best — the mountains and foothills of the Carolinas.
I have always felt blessed and unabashedly proud that my academic career brought me to Clemson University — and doubly so that my greatest influence there was Louis Henry. He was, after all, a native son: Born in 1931 to parents who were employed by the University, he would graduate from Clemson in 1953 and some two decades later be named the first Alumni Master Teacher. I’d known nothing of the award until I picked up a 1974 Homecoming program a few years ago on eBay and started thumbing through in a fit of nostalgia. There he was, featured in a two-page article, younger than I’d ever seen him, but much the same man I’d come to know during my college years in the 1980s.
“Yes, that was quite an honor,” he chuckled when I called down a few days later, then promptly shifted conversation in another direction, a classic Henry maneuver. Of all the subjects on which he’d freely converse — and there were many — he was least inclined to discuss himself, always more interested in the person who’d taken up a seat in his office, living room, wherever.
Louis Henry was a gifted educator, and a good deal more, in part due to his belief that teachers did their greatest work outside of the classroom. It was a mantra he’d adopted early on in his career and practiced daily in his first-floor Strode Tower office. Like so many other Clemson students, I spent my share of time there. First as an undergraduate, then a graduate student and finally, for two years, as an instructor, I took any and all questions — many of them grammar related — and mooched coffee that might have been poured from a crank case. I always felt welcome there, its book-lined shelves punctuated with photographs, the manual typewriter and potted plants. It was a comfortable, easy-going space that seemed in those days Louis Henry’s natural domain.
Equal parts inspiration and common sense, that’s how I remember him and that’s what I took from two of the most valuable lessons I ever received. The first he seemed to embody: Find your passion and pursue it. His work with students over the years spoke to the depth of his commitment. The same might be said of his friendships, now that I think about it, since there was scarcely ever a conversation that didn’t involve the latest on half a dozen other folks of our shared acquaintance. A lot of those lives crossed paths through Louis Henry. Then there was lesson number two, a tough one in this high-tech, fast-paced age that holds everything at the fingertips except time. “Life is in the details,” he said, and said it over and over in the way he lived.
For the past 22 years, our conversations were split between the telephone and the occasional visit in his living room out in Central. The last decade or so saw his health compromised and his activities pared down so that eventually he had to give up his Clemson baseball tickets. Years ago we’d discovered a mutual passion for baseball in general, Clemson baseball in particular, and this near obsession became a recurring theme.
Dr. Henry’s birthday was in February, the same month the Tigers fire off the first pitch, appropriately enough. He knew all the players by name and position, could detail their respective strengths, and preferred “watching games on the radio.” And his trip out to the College World Series in 1996 stayed always fresh in his mind. Indelible, really.
“You have to go. That’s a trip you just have to make,” he kept saying until there was no missing the opportunity and I found myself on a plane out to Omaha with my 9-year-old son in 2010. Life in the details, I remember thinking then, as my traveling companion, who carries the Henry middle name, settled back and tried to rein in his excitement. Always in the details … though it may be years before we fully grasp their meaning.
There are two memorial funds for Dr. Henry set up with the Clemson Foundation: the Dr. Louis Henry ’53 Endowment, supporting The Tiger newspaper, and the Clemson Baseball/Louis Henry Memorial supporting the baseball team.
Clif Collins ’84, M ’88, largely due to the influence of Dr. Henry, is now teaching college English in Laurel, Md.