Dr. Virginia Henderson, a beloved and legendary educator and matriarch for many in the Madison community, passed away on Saturday morning after complications of pneumonia.
Dr. Henderson, along with her husband Dr. Perry Henderson, were well-known philanthropists in Madison and through their generosity and volunteer work have impacted multiple generations of families throughout Dane County.
For many years, Dr. Virginia Henderson worked as a school psychologist and diversity consultant with the Madison Metropolitan School District. She was honored as a YWCA Women of Distinction in 1991 and Woman of the Year Award from Mothers of Simpson Street in 1994 and the Madison Area Service Club Ruth Gordon Service Award.
“I have known Dr. Henderson since the fall of 1993 when she first introduced herself to me at an event where I got up to speak about my experiences as a former West High student,” Kaleem Caire, CEO of One City Schools and longtime Madison southsider, tells Madison365. “I had just returned to Madison that summer. I was a pre-med student and Mrs. Henderson was excited about that. She introduced me to [husband] Dr. Perry Henderson shortly after that when she invited [my wife] Lisa and I to their home for dinner. I felt extra special to know them and to later learn from my aunt that Dr. Perry Henderson had guided the delivery of my younger cousin Kenneth.
“Dr. Virginia Henderson and her friend Diane Crear took me under their wing and gave me a lot of support, advice and guidance after I switched my major to education and was raising my voice as an advocate for young people. She helped me get the meetings that I needed with leaders in Madison and our school district for my research,” Caire adds. “She invited me to teach history at the former African American Ethnic Academy when it was held at Edgewood College. She reviewed articles that I had written for local newspapers before I would send them and served as a confidant to me, as well. I could talk with her about my marriage and family, and things that were troubling me. She gave me great advice about marriage and raising children, and about doing great work and being open to listening to others.”
Henderson was a founding member of Women in Focus, an organization in the Madison area dedicated to helping students of color achieve their dreams. She was also was the founder of the African American Ethnic Academy.
Dr. Henderson was also very active with the Madison Children’s Museum, Madison Community Foundation, Urban League of Greater Dane County, and the Madison Civics Club.
“Mrs. Henderson has been a constant source of inspiration for me growing up. Seeing her as a successful woman who also contributed to the community and held her family close allowed me to see what was possible,” Hedi Rudd, director of the Badger Rock Neighborhood Center, tells Madison365. “Her daughter, Sheryl, is equally inspiring to me as a mother and someone who juggles it all so well. Their family legacy is certainly far-reaching.”
Through their careers and volunteer services, Virginia and Perry Henderson worked together to provide opportunities and to eliminate racial disparities while improving the lives of youths of color in Madison. They have received numerous awards as a couple for this work including the Rotary Senior Service Award, Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award, and the Philanthropy Day Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Hendersons were active members in the Madison Rotary Club and have established a scholarship fund within the Madison Rotary Foundation to provide college scholarship assistance to graduating seniors in the Madison area who have financial need. They have also been generous supporters of The Rotary International Foundation, where they have stepped forward in 2006 to provide a $10,000 matching grant to encourage member gifts to the Polio Eradication Campaign effort.
Virginia and Perry Henderson both grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, but didn’t meet until they were attending college in Atlanta. They were married in 1957.
They have three children. Daughter Sheryl, a professor at UW-Madison, is a pediatrician who was the first African-American woman to earn her MD/PhD in infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University. Daughter Jasmine went to Oberlin then got her MA in psychology and education at the University of Pennsylvania. After working in rape counseling and later as a TV screenwriter in Hollywood, she is now director of Multiculturalism and Inclusion at an independent K-12 school in southern California. Perry Jr., the youngest, played soccer professionally for a few years after college before he entered law school and obtained a J.D. degree from Northeastern University. He lives in Boston with his wife and two sons and practices intellectual property law.
“When I returned to Madison from the East Coast to lead the Urban League, Dr. Virginia and Dr. Perry came to every event and public activity that I was involved in. Every time I would look out in the audience, they were there,” Caire remembers. “She would always give me a hug and tell me how proud she was of me. I would always thank them for being there. It was really special to see them both at a surprise birthday party that Lisa and my Urban League team hosted for me in 2011.
“She told me that she would always support me and she always did,” Caire adds. “While losing her has left a void for so many us, It felt great to be there in her final moments to hold her hand at the hospital the night before she passed. I will remember that and Mrs. Henderson forever.”