Commission chairman gets back on degree track

Commission chairman gets back on degree track

March 8th, 2011 by Dan Whisenhunt in News

Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry is completing his secondary education degree by taking a class inside Hunter Hall at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Among the bright faces and infectious laughs of twentysomethings living away from mom and dad for the first time, there's Larry Henry, 62, in a red sweater.

Outside Hunter Hall at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Henry's an important man - chairman of the Hamilton County Commission - who wears a coat and tie. Here, he strolls quietly into class and sits at his desk. This semester he's learning about middle-school curriculum.

His teacher, Jane Brower, said she sees lots of students who are coming back to college after years out in the real world.

"Maybe not quite as many that have been out of school as long as he has," she adds.

Henry admits it's been a long time since he first attended UTC.

In 1971, he was working toward a bachelor's degree in secondary education with an emphasis in history and political science. He had plans to attend law school and, at a minimum, thought he could use the degree to teach classes and coach high school sports.

Instead, he left college and went into business with his father, L.B. Henry.

"We had some property out in East Brainerd, my dad and I," Henry said. "Dad had a lifelong ambition to build a place of his own. He asked me if I'd be willing to go into business."

That business became Stacy Oil Co., an oil distribution service station.

Between then and when he sold the business in 2004, Henry got caught up in life. He married his wife, Patsy, and raised a family. His son, Gary, is now a practicing attorney in Chattanooga. His daughter, Jennifer Ward, is working on her doctorate in education.

His children say their father had his own expectations for their education.

"Not going to college was not an option after high school, and I know that my brother and I both agree we were very thankful to [their parents]," Ward says.

Even as he set high standards for his children and college, Henry said, he regretted not finishing what he started.

He was elected in 2002 to the Hamilton County Commission, which is heavily entwined with the county's educational system - more than half the county budget goes to schools.

As students passed through the commission chambers on field trips and for recognition, he said the thought of his incomplete education stayed in the back of his mind.

"I've always felt a little guilt by not doing it," Henry said.

Until 2005, Henry said, he lived vicariously through his children's achievements. But as they finished school and moved out into the world, they started reminding their dad about his own goal.

"I really encouraged him to go," Gary Henry said. "He's a smart guy. He's always been a little bit shy about the fact that he hadn't finished school."

"We've just really been encouraging him because [our parents] always encouraged us," Ward said. "They've been very encouraging to us in terms of finishing our education; we felt like this was something Dad could do."

Patsy Henry also encouraged him to finish his degree.

So he's doing it, a little bit at a time. He started taking classes in 2005, usually one class per semester. He was 23 hours short in 1971; he thinks this may be his last semester, but he's not sure.

Either way, he's finishing. Some things are different than 1971. He's got gray hair, of course, and the classes rely as much on computers as they do textbooks. Henry suspects he's older than the teacher.

And he doesn't like to let on who he is, but inevitably someone sees his picture in the newspaper and recognizes him.

"I try to keep as low a profile as I can," he said.

Henry said he wants to put his degree on the wall and admire it, saying he's unlikely to ever use it. But who knows?

"If the good Lord gives me health, I might utilize it one of these days," he says.

Contact staff writer Dan Whisenhunt at dwhisenhunt @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/DWhisenhunt.