School honors late security guard, a ‘Riverhead legend’
“A legend can be imitated, but never duplicated.”
With that slogan in mind, the Riverhead Board of Education paid homage to the late Donald Henderson by retiring his number, 101, during a meeting Tuesday night.
The well-loved, longtime face of Riverhead school security died March 20 from complications after surgery at Peconic Bay Medical Center, his family said. He was 60 years old.
Board of Education president Laurie Downs spoke through tears as she presented his wife Cheryl with a proclamation recognizing Mr. Henderson as a well-respected, crucial part of the school district who had a “magical” smile.
“He was a gentle giant. He really understood the kids,” Ms. Downs said in an interview, recalling Mr. Henderson’s interactions with her own children when they were in school. “He never saw kids as being ‘bad.’ He respected the kids and that made them respect him.”
The son of James Wyche and Alma Henderson, Mr. Henderson was a 1979 graduate of Riverhead who served with the U.S. Army from 1979 to 1986. He married Cheryl Powe on Nov. 5, 1983 in Louisiana and briefly worked as a police officer in Patchogue before starting a career at Riverhead schools in the early 1990s.
During his career in Riverhead, Mr. Henderson — also known as ‘101,’ ‘Henny’ or ‘Donnie’ — helped put together a security plan and helped to license and train security personnel in Riverhead and beyond.
If it was your birthday at Riverhead High School, Mr. Henderson made sure everyone knew.
His voice would bellow, microphone or not: “We got a birthday in the house. We got a birthday in the H.O.U.S.E. Hhhoouuuuseeeeeeeee,” to cheers and laughter in the high school cafeteria.
Since his death, scores of Riverhead alumni shared their memories of Mr. Henderson on social media, mourning his loss and remembering him as a Riverhead legend.
“He saw the good in us even when others didn’t,” read a Facebook post by Ishan Johnson, referring to him as ‘superhuman.’
“He refused to give up on me or let me fail … he made me feel loved unconditionally, like I could always turn it around,” read another by Rachel McRae.
In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Henderson said she and her sons, Donald Jr. and Quentin, have been overwhelmed by the community support. “It’s just been an outpouring of love,” she said.
His son Quentin, 29, said it means a lot to him that the school was retiring his number and laughed as he detailed the many stories he’s heard about his dad in the past few weeks.
“It just makes us realize how much everyone loved him. Everyone loved my father,” he said. “We knew it — but we didn’t really know how he made such a big impact on everyone else.”
He also trained and mentored dozens of new security guards, many of whom were former students.
“He took time out of his day to learn each student’s name and even remember them long after they graduated. He was easy to talk to and gave good advice,” said 2008 graduate Kenny Michalouski, who is now employed as a security guard for the district.
He credits Mr. Henderson’s training and wisdom for helping prepare him for the career.
“He would call me into his office at the end of every shift, compliment me on the right I did and also give me advice on things I could do better,” he said. “He always said the first rule of school safety is to protect students and staff. and maintain a safe environment so the students can obtain an education and that’s what I did and will continue to do.”
In addition to retiring his security number, the district also placed a decal in memory of Mr. Henderson on the school security vehicle and is planning to hang a plaque and name a memorial garden for him at the high school. A plaque will also be given to his family, officials said.
Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Greg Wallace said Tuesday night that Mr. Henderson’s is one of the “first faces” he saw when he arrived to teach in the district in 2001.
“Words cannot express the profound loss our school community feels. He was just a genuine individual, here for the students of this community,” Mr. Wallace said.
Ms. Henderson said that throughout their 39 years of marriage, it was evident that her husband had found his passion working with students, so the tribute at the high school is a fitting one. “
He just liked to reach out and help people. He loved to talk, loved to tell stories and people loved to listen to him,” she said. “I thank God for bringing him into my life because we had a beautiful marriage and two sons. He was such a good person and his heart was good. I loved him so much — until the end. I loved him and I still love him.”
The family received visitors March 25 at the First Baptist Church in Riverhead and Mr. Henderson was buried at Calverton National Cemetery.