Harry Henderson: A Lifetime of Farming and Faith

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Harry and Betty Henderson serving as hosts for the cooling center project at First United Methodist Church of Martin recently.

-Emily Akin-

Harry Henderson of Martin is not “from here,” but he has spent the majority of his adult life in the Martin area, including 38 years as the manager of the UT Martin campus farm. He first came to Martin in 1950 as a student at The University of Tennessee Junior College (the precursor of UTM). Originally from Shelby County, Tennessee, Harry grew up on a dairy farm in a family of five boys and one girl.

At UTJC, Henderson majored in agriculture and worked on the campus farm. He played a little football, too.” It took me three years to finish my degree. I was here for a year and a half and went to Knoxville to finish,” he said. He worked part-time on a dairy farm while at Knoxville. When he finished college in 1953, the Korean conflict was heating up. “I joined the Army because I thought I would be drafted,” he said. During his time in the military, he married his wife Betty, and they spent most of his hitch in Germany.

Once his enlistment was up, Harry went home to Shelby County. In 1958, his old UTJC professors came looking for him. They recruited him to manage the farm at the Martin campus. At the time, it was a big operation including numerous crops, poultry, swine, beef, and dairy. In 1965, the farm became an official UT experiment station for agricultural research. Harry continued in the management role at the farm/experiment station until his retirement in 1996. And, he’s since had a building named after him, the Agriculture and Natural Resources Headquarters Building and former dairy barn.

All along, Harry has been an active member of First United Methodist Church of Martin. “I get credit for more than I deserve,” he said. But, I have a feeling he deserves more credit that he gets. On the day of this interview, he and Betty were volunteering at the cooling center the church offers on weekday afternoons during the heat of the summer. Church members take turns hosting people from the community who come to cool off. Harry is active in the men’s group, also. “We meet every two weeks,” he said. “We have devotionals or studies on topics like John Wesley or various other religions.” Besides being active in the church, Harry has a heart for the unchurched. He was instrumental in getting ladies of the church to regularly visit a seriously-ill lady. She was not affiliated with any church and needed companionship and spiritual support.

Henderson has also been active in community organizations. He and Betty were charter members of the Weakley County Habitat for Humanity. Many are not aware of Habitat’s faith element. The mission statement for the national organization is: “Seeking to put God’s love into action, Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build homes, communities and hope.” The local group built one house per year for a total of 18 houses during the time Harry was a volunteer worker. Betty is still a member of the selection committee, but he said, “I decided it was time for me to stop.” Harry was also a charter member of the Kiwanis Club of Martin, which was organized in 1968. Over the years, he’s been involved in many of their activities and projects for children and youth.

Harry’s done a lot of things, but his passion is farming. He likes to visit his farmer friends in their shops and fields. He’s proud of the professionalism of their operations. He especially admires the multi-generational farm families who have stuck with it through thick and thin. The percentage of the American population actively involved in farming has decreased dramatically since the beginning of his career. For the most part, that is due to mechanization and technology.

Harry expresses amazement at how sophisticated farming has become since he first started out on the family dairy farm. He said, “The equipment is so much safer now. You may remember that there were two local farmers killed in accidents on old tractors this summer.” He went on to describe harvesting equipment that calculates yield and profit, a big time-saver for farmers. He has a good-size garden at home, but most of the acreage around his home has been used to grow hay. For a short time, he rented it out for row crops, but it’s going back to hay soon.

As a bonus, Harry has given Hometown a wealth of information about local farmers and farming operations. He has encouraged us to write features about them. Harry can be very convincing, so, in future issues, look for articles on farmers and farming-related topics.