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Special Education Pioneer, Mentor, & Friend: Robert A. Henderson Passes

by Ashley Lawrence / Apr 23, 2019


Former Dean Mary Kalantzis with Drs. Robert Henderson and Christopher Span in 2016.

A man remembered for wearing many notable hats throughout life—and doing so with passion, precision, generosity, and humor—Professor Robert “Bob” A. Henderson passed away on April 10 at Meadowbrook Health Center in Urbana, Illinois. He was 94. 

Dr. Henderson was a faculty member at Illinois for more than 40 years, serving as chair of the Department of Special Education for 20 years. When he retired from the university in 1993, Henderson took on the title of professor emeritus and remained involved in many College of Education and Department of Special Education activities. He kept office hours that allowed plenty of time for fishing, cooking, and various past times in retirement. In 2016, Henderson received an Honorary James Scholar Award for Lifelong Service from the College.

As recently as that year, Henderson gave a guest lecture to his office mate Cheryl Light Shriner’s SPED/PSYC/REHB 322: Introduction to Intellectual Disabilities class about phenylketonuria (PKU) and his research developing the best intervention plan for individuals with PKU.

“Following this lecture, one of the students in the course followed Dr. Henderson to his car—without my knowledge—and thanked him for all he had done to help people with PKU. The student disclosed that he had PKU, had been on a special diet since his diagnosis a few days after birth, and was now a student at the University of Illinois,” said Light Shriner. “When Dr. Henderson recounted this to me, he was obviously touched and said this had never happened before in his career. He’d never met an individual with PKU who had achieved the success that this student represented.”

Shaping Policy

Henderson, who earned his doctorate in Special Education under the direction of Samuel Kirk, was a true pioneer of the discipline in his own right. He was a key player in developing and refining the treatment plan for individuals with PKU, a rare inherited metabolic disorder that causes an amino acid called phenylalanine to build up in the body, which, left untreated, can lead to intellectual disability, seizures, behavioral problems, and mental disorders.

His greatest work, however, says Jim Shriner, Henderson’s colleague and neighbor, may have been educating and influencing policymakers and administrators in the burgeoning field of Special Education.

“Bob was the person who implemented the things that Sam Kirk wanted to make happen—at the national level,” said Shriner. “He trained administrators in Washington D.C. and around the world in special education during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Bob mentored graduate students at Illinois and sent them to Washington; the domino effect of his impact is really quite striking. He trained numerous government workers in special education.

“Bob thought policy change was very important, and he really valued that work,” said Shriner. “It doesn’t always get the big headlines like a $10 million research grant, but it’s where research and practice meet.”

The Henderson Legacy

Henderson’s legacy lives on, says Shriner, through his connections with graduate students and colleagues that lasted lifetimes.

“He valued relationships above things, and he was so proud of the College and the Department of Special Education. He really did care about what was happening here. He never tired of this College, it was a part of him. He was part of history, and I’ll miss him dearly.”

With a deferred gift of about $750,000, Henderson previously established the Robert and June Henderson Endowment Fund to support Special Education programs in the College of Education. The fund honors the memory of his wife, June, a social worker involved for many years in child abuse and neglect investigation for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

More about Dr. Henderson’s life experiences and impact are available in this faculty profile story, as well as his obituary in the News-Gazette.

On behalf of the entire College of Education, we extend our deep condolences to Dr. Henderson’s family and friends.