Teacher Evelyn Mildred Henderson dies at 109

Written By BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter Posted: 05/06/2014, 10:48am
Array Evelyn Mildred Henderson's funeral program | Provided photo

Evelyn Mildred Henderson made a buttermilk poundcake so good, her granddaughter used the recipe in college to make it and sell it to hungry students in her dorm to earn extra money, 50 cents a slice.

When people tasted the scrumptious synthesis of butter, sugar, flour and eggs, they recognized its provenance. “This is Miss Henderson’s poundcake,” they’d say.

More remarkable than the cake’s ambrosial quality was the vintage of its maker.

Mrs. Henderson was still turning out her poundcakes when she was 106 years old.

She was 109 when she died on April 8.

A teacher and librarian, she was once married to pianist Horace Henderson, who played with Billie Holiday and Lena Horne. Mrs. Henderson lived through the administrations of nineteen U.S. presidents; could recall the sinking of the Titanic; and voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 — and not by absentee ballot.

She used her walker to arrive at the voting machine at her Hyde Park polling place, saying, “I never thought I would live this long, that a black person would be president of the United States.”

Her family was often met by incredulity when they assured health care workers that Mrs. Henderson didn’t need dentures or diapers.

During one hospital stay, a doctor asked her daughter, Theresa Henderson Burroughs, what Mrs. Henderson did all day.

“ ‘Well,” Burroughs said of her mother, “she likes the channel with the game shows. Right now she is crocheting me another afghan. And she likes to play card games on the computer and she likes to work crossword puzzles. And she insists on doing the dishes at night.”

“Well,” the physician responded, with a distinctly dubious air, “your mother certainly is busy.’ ”

“I guess I was supposed to say she sits in the corner and drools,” her daughter said.

Mrs. Henderson’s health was good until three months ago, when she broke her hip. Though she came through hip replacement surgery when she was 100, she began to decline after the break in the other hip in February. She died at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

She was born in the town of Winchester, Kentucky, about 16 miles from Lexington. Her father, John, was a physician, and her mother, Eva Tyler, was a nurse. They met while studying at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, which bills itself as the first medical school for African-Americans in the South.

In Winchester at that time, African-Americans could sit only in the balcony at the movie theater. Many African-American women worked as domestics or took in white peoples’ laundry to make money.

Mrs. Henderson could remember newsboys hawking extra editions of the paper on the streets of Winchester when the Titanic sank in 1912. “All we knew was that it hit an iceberg and a lot of rich people died,” she told her daughter.

At about 16, she went to Wilberforce University in Ohio, where she pledged Delta Sigma Theta. There she met fellow student Horace Henderson, a pianist, band leader and arranger. After graduation, she taught for a year in a school in downstate Cairo, and they married in 1927.

Her husband — whose brother was swing bandleader Fletcher Henderson, the arranger for Benny Goodman — was playing and arranging music for legendary vocalists including Holiday and Horne.

Horace Henderson cut ties to Holiday when he worried her drug use might drag him down, his daughter said.

“He said once that she called him in and she told him she wanted him to deliver a package for her” to someone on the street, Burroughs said. “That’s when he packed his bags and he left. He thought it was drugs.”

Sometimes Mrs. Henderson went on the road with him, but it was a hard life, especially for an expectant mother. She returned home to Winchester for her daughter’s birth.

They took up residence in New York City. For a time, they lived in an apartment with a family friend who was raising four children, one of whom would grow up to be the actress Ruby Dee. “My mother used to comb Ruby Dee’s hair when she was 8,” her daughter said.

Horace Henderson kept busy touring. Their daughter remembers when he sent for her to come to see him perform at an Army base in Kentucky. The soldiers clamored to meet Horne, who was at the height of her paradisiacal beauty.

“She was tall. And a beautiful color, and pretty eyes,” Burroughs said. There was one hint that she was a mortal, rather than formed on Mount Olympus. “She had a crooked bottom tooth.”

After nearly dying from appendicitis in New York, Mrs. Henderson returned to Winchester, where she taught Latin and American government and worked as a librarian at a segregated school, Oliver High School, from 1933-1957. She and her husband divorced.

She started a travel club that enabled students to visit Washington, Boston and New York.

“She liked to promote children to do the best they could and encourage them to go to college,” her daughter said.

In the 1950s, she earned a master’s in library science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Mrs. Henderson took a position teaching at Dunbar High School in Lexington, and later, at Lexington Junior High. She retired in 1972.

Though she moved to Chicago 20 years ago to live with her daughter, they made yearly visits to Winchester, where Mrs. Henderson was greeted with affection and respect. “She would sit on the front porch, people would see her, [and] you hear the brakes being put on,” her daughter said.

“People were constantly dropping by the house to see her,” said her granddaughter, Karen Burroughs Hannsberry. “And she always remembered every one of them. It seemed like everybody in Winchester was either taught by my grandmother or had a relative who was taught by my grandmother.”

“Her former students were her friends because just about everybody her age was dead,” her daughter said.

“There were a few that went to Kentucky State University in Frankfort, and when they would come home for the weekend, if they weren’t doing well, they would bring their books home and she would help them,” her daughter said.

When she wasn’t gardening or baking cakes, she was making clothes for Hannsberry’s dolls. “I still have a really sharp full-length coat made of brown leather for my Barbie doll and a matching floppy hat,” she said. “Real leather.”

Mrs. Henderson was her family’s search engine. She was the one called when someone wanted to figure out if they could use a substitute for baking soda in a recipe or what to do when their houseplants turned yellow.

She even knew home repairs from following her father around, said her grandson, Alan Burroughs. “If somebody was going to do some carpentry, she would want a certain type of molding. She would make sure that they would use something that would look good,” he said. For plumbing, “she would tell them not to use a certain type of pipe.’’

She helped her great-grandchildren with math, said one of them, Veronica Hannsberry, a senior at King College Prep.

Mrs. Henderson loved Pepsi-Cola and March Madness. The University of Kentucky team was her favorite, though sometimes she would get so nervous about a game, she had to turn the TV off.

She also is survived by another grandson, Kevin Smith, four great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild.

Services were held in Winchester.

Email: modonnell@suntimes.com

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