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James C. Henderson described as a legend

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FARMINGTON — When construction on the new fine arts center at San Juan College was being completed in 1994 and school leaders were considering what to call it, Gayle Dean said the list of possible names was a short one.

"I remember this decision as being sort of a given," she said, explaining there was a consensus that the facility would be named after James C. Henderson, the college's longtime president.

Even so, that move ran contrary to the institution's practices, she said.

"The protocol of the (Board of Trustees) at the time went against having buildings named after living people," she said. "But there was no question that the next thing that was going to get built would be named after him."

That decision reflected the esteem in which Henderson was held, said Dean, now the executive director of the San Juan College Foundation. She and the college's president, Dr. Toni Pendergrass, shared their memories of Henderson this week after the 87-year-old Farmington resident died March 17 after an extended fight against Alzheimer's disease.

Dean recalled that the decision to name the building the James C. Henderson Fine Arts Center caught the normally reserved honoree a little off guard.

"Dr. Henderson was not a real emotional person — he was very friendly and very kind, but he didn't show a lot of emotion," she said. "But it was very apparent how much it meant to him and his family," Dean said.

Both women knew Henderson for many years. Pendergrass, who became president of the college in 2012, said she relied heavily on Henderson, often seeking his counsel when she had a tough decision to make.

"I will always be grateful for the support and guidance he provided to me," she said.

Pendergrass couldn't recall an instance in which Henderson wasn't willing to share his thoughts with her.

"He always made himself available to me," she said.

Henderson led the institution longer than it has been known by its current name. He came to Farmington in 1975 to take over as campus director of the school, which, at the time, was a branch campus of New Mexico State University. But according to his obituary, Henderson envisioned the school developing its own identity and brand. His lobbying of state lawmakers paid off seven years later when San Juan College was established as an independent institution.

Naturally, Henderson became its first president and served in that capacity until 2002. He continued to serve the school afterward as president emeritus and was provided with an on-campus office.

His experience at San Juan College was hardly the extent of his public service.

Henderson also served as a San Juan County commissioner from 2004 to 2012 and was a board member of numerous community organizations. Dean said Henderson not only served those organizations tirelessly as a decision maker, he also a very visible presence at their public events.

"I don't ever remember an important occasion in San Juan County that I didn't speak with Dr. Henderson," she said. "Anything in this county, Dr. Henderson was there. He represented the heart of this community."

Dean said Henderson was always dressed in a suit and tie during those occasions. But she laughed when she remembered the one time she saw him at a public event when he had taken a less-formal approach to his appearance. It was during a classic car show on the college campus approximately 30 years ago. To Dean's amusement, she saw Henderson strolling among the cars with his family in jeans, a western shirt and a cowboy hat. Dean seized the opportunity to have a little fun with him.

"I said, 'Do I know you?'" she said, laughing. "But he loved to make jokes. Even during the most serious meeting, he enjoyed making people laugh and lightening the subject."

Henderson was born in Durango, Colorado, in 1933 but later relocated to Arizona. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff before earning his doctorate from the University of Arizona.

Henderson began his teaching career in Douglas, Arizona, then spent many years as the county and district superintendent of schools in Bisbee and Willcox, Arizona. He then moved to Farmington, where he assumed the title of chief administrator of the San Juan Branch Community College, New Mexico State University.

Henderson served in the U.S. Army from 1953 to 1955, then married Tycie Jameson in 1956. They had three sons, Jeffrey, Jack and Jim; and a daughter, Carol. Jeffrey Henderson died at a young age, and a scholarship bearing his name was established through the San Juan College Foundation.

"There was nothing more important to Dr. Henderson than his family," Dean said, noting that Henderson interpreted that term liberally and came to consider many San Juan College students part of his extended family.

She recalled how he made a habit of walking the halls of the college, extending a warm greeting to anyone he encountered.

"Our students were pretty star struck," Dean said. "Here he was, all decked out, walking up to maybe a pretty scruffy-looking student with his hand out, wondering what he could do for them. He was so down to earth."

Pendergrass said every student was important to Henderson, but he went out of his way to make Native students feel comfortable on the campus. She said Henderson was called upon one time to provide a welcome speech for a group of new students, many of whom were from Native American communities. Henderson spent a week learning how to deliver his entire presentation in Navajo, then pulled it off flawlessly, she said.

Both Dean and Pendergrass described Henderson as a legend.

"He's left a tremendous legacy here in this county and in all of our hearts," Pendergrass said.

A funeral service for Henderson will be held at 11 a.m. March 20 at Riverstone Methodist Church, 808 N. Monterey Ave. in Farmington. According to a press release from San Juan College, based on guidance from the governor's office that limits group gatherings to 10 people, the service will be open only to immediate family members.

However, college personnel will videotape the service, and it will be presented on the SJC website at sanjuancollege.edu shortly afterward, according to the press release.

A private family burial will follow the service at Memory Gardens Cemetery, 6917 E. Main St. in Farmington. College officials have announced they will hold a celebration of Henderson's life at the fine arts center that bears his name at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, Henderson's family has asked that donations be made in his name to the Alzheimer's Association or to the San Juan College Foundation Jeffrey B. Henderson Memorial Scholarship.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly//216TU0e

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