Part of my outrage on this blog in the last few days was fueled by the death of a professor of mine, Dr. Edward L. Henson, Jr.
Long before John Candy showed up in a John Hughes movie and claimed the sobriquet, Dr. Henson earned the nickname Uncle Buck among my classmates at what was then Clinch Valley College.
And our Uncle Buck wasn’t some fat lovable slob in Chi-town.
Buck Henson was probably the finest instructor, finest gentleman and finest American I’d ever known. And if I could ever overcome my weaknesses as a human being, Buck Henson is the kind of person I’d most want to be.
Buck lived a long life, and the last decade left so many of us who knew him in a prelude to mourning as his faculties faded.
But a quarter-century ago, Uncle Buck was a force of nature. Well over 6 feet tall, he dressed very conservatively, carried an old leather briefcase to and from classes, and wielded a ferocious intellect sharpened with a friendly, gentlemanly manner and a sense of humor that could immobilize an entire roomful of people.
My favorite Buck Henson story was in the spring of 1984. I was under a great deal of stress, facing six final exams and completion of my history paper for graduation.
Many of us in the department’s class of 1984 shared several classes that spring, and the usual suspects inhabited Buck’s U.S. diplomatic history class one morning. One of our compatriots, Hank Williams, Jr. (not the singer, but a well-respected and extraordinarily shy man) was first in the lineup for the day’s class presentations on various figures in the nation’s diplomatic history.
As Hank took his station at the podium, we all heard Buck’s deep-throated chuckle from the back of the room. The chuckling built, as we all looked at each other in a confused manner. Hank got nervous and began checking his shirt buttons and zipper.
After three or four minutes, Henson grinned and said the most memorable phrase I’d ever heard in college or graduate school.
“Mr. Williams, I don’t know whether to ask you to give your presentation on Sumner Welles or to sing three bars of “My Cheating Heart.””
Long before that, Buck had earned my undying respect for his ability to humanize history and show his love for his country while being quite willing to make the most direct, dispassionate, articulate criticisms for the idiotic acts committed in the name of democracy at various times throughout the last 230 years.
And Buck was just as willing to admire the great things of this country. Buck loved his family, his community, his country and mankind.
Buck was an infantry officer in Europe just weeks after Germany surrendered, and his tales of duty on the Italian-Yugoslavian frontier left one wondering just what American leaders were thinking after they had conquered the most evil force of mankind to that point. His were not stories of fire-breathing, God-fearing patriotism. They were stories – sometimes funny, sometimes surreal, sometimes sad -of a 20-year old man coming to grips with a world outside Virginia.
My agnosticism doesn’t mean I reject the idea of a God. And if there is one, I truly hope that he or she or it has eased Buck Henson’s suffering in reward for the effect he has had on so many people.