When Henry Henderson grew up in a heavily industrialized area of Downstate Granite City, he and his friends found they could light the water on fire that seeped into basements after heavy storms. The experience pushed him toward a career of protecting the environment and public health.

Although he knew the local steel mill provided jobs and was integral to the city’s economy, Mr. Henderson at a young age also became interested in finding ways prevent pollution, said his sister, Ann Tonks.

“He was drawn to find out how we make sure the environment does not suffer at the expense of human endeavor,” Tonks said.

Mr. Henderson, who was Midwest director for the Natural Resources Defense Council and a leading advocate for the environment, died Nov. 5 at his Evanston home after a lengthy illness. He was 66.

“He was consistently dedicated to the public interest,” said M. Cameron “Cam” Davis, a longtime environmental advocate who was elected on Nov. 6 to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District board. “He understood that to protect the environment you had to understand both policy and politics, and he was able to marshal both for a cleaner environment.”

Henry Henderson as city environment commissioner in 1997. | Sun-Times Library

In the 1980s, Mr. Henderson was staff director of Mayor Harold Washington’s Shoreline Protection Commission. After taking office in 1989, former Mayor Richard M. Daley picked him to be the first environment commissioner for the city of Chicago. Among his undertakings as commissioner, he helped launch the city’s blue-bag recycling program, helped shut down illegal garbage dumps and oversaw the Chicago Brownfields Initiative, an effort to clean up abandoned industrial sites. He also helped lead the fight to preserve the North Park Village Nature Center. In an email, Daley called Mr. Henderson “a great leader during a vital time in Chicago’s history.”

“At a time when there was no model, Henry really defined how cities can function as good environmental models,” said Bill Abolt, who succeeded Mr. Henderson as Chicago environment commissioner. “Henry understood that if you address problems like recycling and cleanup of contaminated property and create and enhance open space, you not only make cities more livable, you also make them more equitable and more competitive.”

One of his achievements was the creation of the Chicago Greencorps, a job-training program that turned vacant lots into community gardens and built planter medians around the city, Abolt said. Greencorps was part of his effort to clean up underserved communities, he said.

“He understood you couldn’t build a sustainable city if you didn’t take care of the most vulnerable populations,” Abolt said.

Mr. Henderson also taught environmental law and policy at the University of Chicago, and he was a senior fellow at the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“He was really an honest and inspiring leader,” said Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “He was a smart, highly educated guy just overflowing with ideas.”

Mr. Henderson earned degrees from Kenyon College, Oxford University, the University of Chicago and Washington University in St. Louis. While at Kenyon College, he spent a summer at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota because of his interest in how American Indians had developed a culture in harmony with nature, an interest piqued by his many days spent as a child at the Field Museum, Tonks said.

Before joining the NRDC in 2007, he served as an assistant attorney general for the State of Illinois with a focus on the environment.

In a statement, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, “[Mr. Henderson’s] tenacity, ability to bring all voices to the table, and concern for communities most impacted by environmental challenges made a lasting difference during his time as Chicago commissioner for environment.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in a statement, “Without Henry and his dogged work at NRDC, we would have never been as successful at addressing manganese pollution in Southeast Chicago or taking on contamination issues from BP Whiting. His dedication to leaving this planet better and cleaner for the next generation will be long remembered.”

Mr. Henderson also is survived by his wife Jacqueline and sons Benjamin and James.

Services will be private.