“Senator Henry spent most of his career in public service,” said Dean Chris Guthrie. “He was a quiet but staunch supporter of the law school, where he played a critical role in the successful campaign to construct the current building. I’m grateful for his legacy and for his commitment to Vanderbilt Law School and the state of Tennessee.”
Henry received the law school’s highest honor, the Distinguished Alumnus Award, in 1991.
Henry’s service in the Tennessee state legislature spanned six decades before he retired in 2014. A conservative Democrat respected by members of both parties, Henry was the longest-serving member in the history of the Tennessee General Assembly. “He was old school in every way, from his seersucker suits to his eloquent manner of speech,” his obituary in the Tennessean stated. “His suits switched to seersucker like clockwork the Monday after Easter. His accent was the deeply rich warm syrup of the Nashville drawl rarely heard….now. He knew French, Italian, Latin, German and Greek.
“During much of his time at the legislature, the senator could be spotted with his signature bright blond hair swooped to one side and a cigar frequently at the helm. He wore a suit and tie everywhere he went.”
A native Nashvillian, Henry served for two and a half years in the U.S. Army, stationed in the Philippines, during World War II, and then returned to Nashville and earning his law degree at Vanderbilt.
Henry was first elected to a state House seat in 1954 before being elected to the Senate in 1970 to represent Nashville’s District 21. During the 1960s, he worked as a staff attorney for the National Life and Accident Insurance Co.
As a long-serving chair of the Senate’s Finance, Ways and Means Committee, Henry gained a reputation as an expert on state finances. He left the state legislature in 2014, but remained a presence at the state Capitol and continued to draw the respect of current lawmakers.
“Senator Henry was a true Southern gentleman,” said former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who also noted that Henry was courteous to everyone and put the interests of the state ahead of any political or personal concerns. “Politics is becoming every day more of a coarse and self-serving activity, but today, we should pause a moment and remember it at its best: gentlemanly, respectful and generous — the way Senator Henry practiced it every day.”
Bob Thomas ’70, a retired partner at the former Boult Cummings law firm and Henry’s longtime campaign finance chair, said Henry had a remarkable command of issues and history. “There will never be anybody else like Senator Henry in the Tennessee legislature,” Thomas said. “He had no personal agenda and no personal ambition. He just wanted to do what all of our elected officials ought to do, and that’s what’s good for the public. There’s not many of those around.”
As a lawmaker, Henry sponsored the first child seat restraint law in the nation and pushed child abuse reporting and adoption laws. Henry was considered a champion of the environment, public education, and the rights of women and seniors. Henry also was instrumental in raising money and organizing the efforts to create the Korean and Vietnam War memorials in Legislative Plaza and the World War II memorial in Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park.
Henry grew up in an affluent family that made money from the National Life and Accident Insurance Co., a Nashville-based company his grandfather helped form. He approached the state Senate as a full-time job, but he also practiced law for several years, serving as assistant vice president and counsel for the National Life and Accident Insurance Co.
He was active in many community organizations throughout his life, including the YMCA, the Tennessee Historical Society, the Kiwanis Club, American Legion Post 5, the Tennessee State Museum Foundation Board and the Tennessee Foreign Language Institute Board. In the late 1980s, he chaired the Southern Legislative Conference.
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry (MBA’93) praised Henry for his distinguished service in the legislature. “He was a fervent student and teacher of our shared history, he was an expert on the state budget, and he set a high standard for decorum and decency in public life,” Barry said. “Nashville was proud to call him one of ours, and we miss him already. I know I am joined by many across the state of Tennessee, which Senator Henry loved so dearly, in celebrating the life and legacy of a true statesman.”
Henry’s ability to reach across the aisle and respect those with opposing views was evident throughout his time in the Senate, even on the day of his departure. “Goodbye everybody, be always kind and true,” he said in his farewell address to the Senate in 2014.
Henry’s wife of 67 years, Loiette (Lolly) BA’49, died in December 2016. He is survived by five children, 13 grandchildren and a large extended family.