Henderson found niche as teacher and leader

Gerald Henderson, superintendent of the Marion-Florence school district, stumbled upon his love for teaching and has followed that path from 1968 until the end of this year.

Henderson is retiring following this term, after six years as USD 408 superintendent.

“I’m leaving because we have things in place in Marion-Florence USD 408 that are exactly the way we decided we want them to be in that strategic plan in 1999,” Henderson said. “All they need to do is continue.

“After 65 years on this earth, I’m ready not to work so hard. I’m ready to spend more time with grandchildren and more time playing golf, and Cathy (Henderson’s wife) and I have a few places we want to visit.”

Henderson said his career ambitions spawned from life experiences.

“Everybody’s a sum total of all the experiences they’ve ever had, and you sort through them and accept some and reject some,” he said.

A turning point in his life came after Henderson graduated from the College of Emporia in 1961 with a degree in English-which he called an “unmarketable degree.”

Not knowing what he wanted to do for a job, he joined the U.S. Navy. He went to candidate school in Newport, R.I., was commissioned in 1962 and went aboard ship as an officer.

With only two years of duty left, Henderson boarded the USS Jenessee as a communications officer. Shortly before he completed his service, Henderson was offered a position of leadership in the Navy.

During his time as an officer, one of Henderson’s peripheral assignments was to be a personnel officer. He said that part of that responsibility was to determine qualifications for sailors to advance to a third-level standing.

“In reviewing all of the service jackets of all of the sailors on board, I discovered there were a number of those kids coming out of Navy basic training who were high school dropouts.”

In response, Henderson helped establish as criteria for making the third level that officers must have either a high school diploma or a general education degree.

“To get youngsters who had not completed high school prepared to take that GED test, we made available (refresher courses) in the duty sections-that’s whenever you had to stay aboard ship in the duty section.”

Henderson chose to remain onboard to help sailors study math and English, the two main exams on the GED.

“I taught both math and English to the high school dropouts-and I got hooked,” he said.

When Henderson’s tour on the USS Jenessee was completed, he decided to go back to college and become certified to teach. He spent one year at the University of Kansas getting a teacher’s certificate, then spent five years teaching in Leavenworth and then Hugoton.

During his time at Hugoton, Henderson became associated with Andy Thompkins. Together they formed the English department faculty at Hugoton.

“Andy Thompkins has been one of my closest friends since 1970 and has been a blessing to me,” Henderson said.

Since 1970, Thompkins has had many opportunities to work with Henderson, as a teacher, as a principal and now as the state commissioner of education in Topeka.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that his strongest characteristic is his genuine concern for helping others,” Thompkins said of Henderson. “And in his instance, helping people learn.

“Whether it is adults, kids, whoever, that’s been his forte and what he’s been really passionate about.”

Henderson said the qualities that have helped him be a teacher have also helped develop his passion for leadership.

“While I really enjoyed being a classroom teacher, I became disillusioned pretty quickly that I didn’t have enough say in what was going on,” he said.

To satisfy his desire to lead, Henderson went back to school and earned a master’s degree in school leadership at Emporia State University.

After that he worked as high school principal in Eudora for three years, Valley Center for two years and El Dorado for six years.

During this time, Henderson was an active member of the Kansas Association of Secondary School Principals and served as the organization’s representative to the United School Administrators of Kansas.

In 1982 Henderson was president of USA and shortly after became the executive director of the school administrator association in Topeka for 13 years.

After serving in that capacity for a while, Henderson decided to return to his original goal-to manage a school system in the state of Kansas.

Henderson said he has enjoyed serving with the USD 408 Board of Education and “making things better for kids and their community.

“No other person in any political unit has as much influence on what happens in that unit as does the superintendent of schools,” he said.

“If you establish a trusting relationship with those seven people and you work together with a focus that is centered on children, you can’t help but have a ball. And that’s what I’ve done for six years.”

Henderson said that the most important aspect of his job is to facilitate better lives for children.

“You just facilitate all kinds of things and all kinds of environments for really talented, caring, brilliant people to do their thing,” he said. “I learned in the Navy that I could lead people; that I could create environments where people reached (goals), agreed upon goals and find a way to get those done.”

Malinda Olson wrote this article on Jerry Henderson-and the article last week on Chet Roberts of Goessel-as a class assignment in Mass Media Writing II.

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