On a coffee table in Judge Robert Henry’s offices in downtown Oklahoma City, underneath a copy of the “centennial Quran” that made rounds through the state Legislature in 2007, lies an inconspicuous wood and glass case housing an array of letter openers ” gifts from friends and colleagues over the years.
‘To the next level’
‘Know some stuff’
Among these, a selection of the 400 or so the judge has collected, is the late, former Gov. Henry Bellmon’s. Simple, with minimal ornamentation, it’s “ready for business,” the judge said. Another ” an elegant example of Navajo silver and turquoise workmanship ” reflects the love of its owner, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, for American Indian artistry. Darker gray and almost Art Deco, Cliff and Leslie Hudson’s letter opener, featuring ginkgo leaves on the handle, illustrates their artistic bent. It’s “just like them,” Henry said. “Letter openers tell you about people.”
The same might be said of offices. Henry’s in the federal courthouse speaks volumes (literally ” rows of books line the walls) about the man, who soon will leave it and his post as chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. He will take the helm at Oklahoma City University when President Tom McDaniel retires in July. In an uncertain economy, Henry leaves a lifetime appointment to the bench ” where, he quips, the only way he could fail is to commit high crime and misdemeanor.
“At a time of economic insecurity, I’m giving up the most secure (position) that exists,” he said.
The question on anyone’s mind might be: Why? The books, paintings and photographs that fill his office offer insight, alongside his life. Leaving the bench for OCU follows on the heels of decades of taking steps from one place of significance ” and, perhaps more importantly, service ” to another.
Paradigm shiftsThroughout Henry’s office in the federal courthouse, photographs and artwork bear witness to times in his life that have helped direct his course. Near his desk hangs one of his favorite paintings, depicting John F. Kennedy’s young son looking on at the flag-draped casket of his father. Henry was only 10 when JFK was assassinated, but the president’s admonition to “ask what you can do for your country” and death struck him.
“That is one of my most early memories, and I was so moved by that ” JFK’s idealism and his wit, his sense of humor. I didn’t know politicians could have a sense of humor,” he said. “My mother said, ‘This is a very historic and sad event,’ and we made a scrapbook ” collected all the things people wrote and said. “¦ That was sort of one of these moments that focused me.”
In high school came another such experience: Henry won a William Randolph Hearst Scholarship, which sent him to Washington, D.C., for a week to meet with members of each branch of the government ” all three in which he would eventually serve.
“Here’s this 17-year-old kid from Shawnee, and I walk into the Mayflower Hotel and it was kind of this ‘Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore’ moment,” Henry said. “I shook hands with J. Edgar Hoover ” the legendary FBI guy ” that was a paradigm shift.”
Henry went on to college at the University of Oklahoma, where he graduated with a law degree in 1976. The same year, he ran for the state Legislature and won, ultimately serving a decade in the House. In 1987, he moved into the executive branch as state attorney general. Then, in 1991, thinking he would embark on an academic career instead, he became dean of the OCU law school.
“I loved my time there,” he said. “I took a New Testament Greek class when I was dean. … I loved the music. OCU is internationally known for its music program, but it has a strong biology program, nursing “¦ business school.”
Then, in 1994, “this judicial thing came up,” as Henry put it. President Bill Clinton nominated and the U.S. Senate confirmed him as a judge to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Based in Denver, the court reviews appellate cases as an intermediary between district courts and the Supreme Court. In 2008, Henry became chief judge of the court.
A poem by friend N. Scott Momaday accolades him (“it’s nice to have friends who are poets,” Henry said, flexing his wit ” having friends who are poets means they will say poetic things about you): “As a man you transcend the limits of your locality. You find your stride.”
These experiences in public service are what McDaniel said make Henry ” a friend for 30-some years ” a solid next president for the university.
“I think he has shown himself to be “¦ a servant leader,” said McDaniel, who will become chancellor upon retiring. “He is a leader, but he is committed to serving others, and I think that is exactly what I think a university president should be. “¦ I wholeheartedly support him.”
‘Renaissance man’When former Oklahoma City Mayor Ron Norick, OCU trustee and search committee chair, learned a year ago that McDaniel planned to retire, he queried Henry about his interest in the post. Norick said Henry had mentioned he always wanted to serve as president of a liberal arts college someday.
Henry considers the liberal arts crucial ” the subjects that a free people need to know and the subjects that they study. Not surprising, a turn through the ranks of books in his office alone could serve as a course in the field.
Alongside law books reside others on art and government. Works on philosophy and theology ” Judaism, Islam, Christianity ” abound. The King James Bible, Henry’s favorite translation, bolsters a whole row of Bibles, adjacent to Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” (Henry ironically notes their apparent peaceful juxtaposition.) On another shelf lies Homer’s “Iliad,” his favorite book.
“It’s actually an anti-war book,” he said, “an anti-hubris book.”
Despite, however, his love of the humanities and having served as dean of OCU’s law school, Henry’s response, according to Norick, was hesitant ” he didn’t see how he could leave a lifetime appointment. A national search yielded 43 applicants, along with 10 nominations, one of which was Henry.
“It took a while for him to come around and become convinced he could (leave),” Norick said, but Henry did. The university’s trustees announced on Dec. 10, 2009, that he would serve as the 17th president of the private, Methodist-affiliated liberal arts university, where he will also be able to teach.
“I fully expect that he will be there a long time,” Norick said. “He’s a real renaissance man. “¦ He’s a gifted speaker, he’s a gifted writer, he’s funny. “¦ The students up there are going to love him and (his wife) Jan.”
‘To the next level’Although a world traveler who has ventured to China, the Middle East and Eastern Europe through judicial work, Henry’s interest in OCU is linked to his love of Oklahoma City. He moved to the metro from Shawnee in 1986 after being elected attorney general.
“I have never wanted to live anywhere else,” he said. “It’s an egalitarian place ” you can make the kind of life here that you want to make “¦ if you’re reasonable about it and work hard.”
By stepping down from the bench, he will be able to take more part in revitalization brought on by MAPS and other projects.
“OCU is the city’s university ” it has the city in its name, it’s proud of the city, and the future (of the two) is inextricably linked,” he said. “I want this city and its university to move to the next level. And I want to try to help ” and I think I can.”
The challenges he will face in doing that, according to Norick, are those that face any private liberal arts college: funding the endowment. Raising funds is key, former University of Central Oklahoma president George Nigh said, because raising tuition runs the risk of running off students.
“In today’s world, higher education is different than it was 30 years ago,” Nigh said. “It’s not only academic, it’s community relations and public relations and fund-raising “¦ and Robert Henry will be great at that.”
That the faculty is familiar with and receptive with him are assets, as well, Norick said. When he took Henry to a faculty luncheon after the announcement had been made, the professors applauded.
“I think that’s going to make his job a lot easier,” Norick said.
‘Know some stuff’Henry will have served a little more than 16 years on the bench when he steps away from, as he wryly observes, what Alexander Hamilton called the “least dangerous” branch of government. It will mark a return to the academic career he meant to begin almost two decades ago.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the law business,” he said. “Each branch ” I’ve served in the legislative, the executive and the judicial branches. My father’s a judge; my brother’s a judge; my uncle ” the governor’s father ” is a judge. But I’ve always had broad interests. I love the liberal arts, and people have kind of forgotten what that means.”
Henry hopes to see OCU students not forget: “I think the music students need to attend some of the biology lectures “¦ and I think law students need to attend the music concerts,” he said, adding graduates of OCU “know some stuff” ” theology, philosophy and more ” regardless of their major.
“These things can be helpful if you’re a lawyer, a nurse, a businessman,” he said. “So I hope that students who graduate from OCU can write a speech and an essay and maybe conduct a meeting.”
That might sound like a meager list ” but it’s actually pretty profound. OCU graduates could do anything, then. They could do what this originally small-town Oklahoman has done. “Emily Jerman
Taste, testedA lifelong interest in public service isn’t the only facet of Robert Henry’s character rooted in childhood. From his grandmothers growing up, he gained a love of gardening and cooking.
They should be proud: The chief judge took home four blue ribbons at the state fair this year for his ratatouille and other culinary delights. Shortly before his death in September, former Gov. Henry Bellmon visited Henry’s garden.
“I have never seen tomatoes like this,” Bellmon said.
A former Oklahoma Gazette commentary writer, Henry once penned a popular column wishing Columbus had landed at Plymouth ” because then Thanksgiving meals would be tastier: Italian. (He has since discovered the secret to making turkey appealing: “Brining makes all the difference,” he said.)
During the holiday season, Henry and his wife, Jan, host an annual Christmas party ” the “Boar’s Head Feast.” Retiring Oklahoma City University President Tom McDaniel cited fond memories of gathering around the piano and listening to professional-quality singers join in.
“A lot of people go who can really sing,” he said. “I am not one of those people ” but Robert Henry is.”
Next Christmas, Henry admitted, when he and his wife are part of the 3,700-student university, the gathering might be a little bit bigger.
photo Robert Henry will become Oklahoma City University’s 17th president in July. photo Mark Hancock