Charles Henderson, D-day veteran, colonel

By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / September 7, 2009

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Charles Henderson witnessed the horrors of war firsthand. He was there when American troops landed on the beaches of Normandy - on D-Day, June 6, 1944 - supervising the disembarking of vehicles from landing ship tanks and then walking among the hundreds of dead on the shore en route to reuniting with his unit.

He was in Paris when it was liberated from Germans in August 1944 and with the XVIII Airborne Corps during the Battle of the Bulge, the last major Nazi offensive against the Allies in World War II in late 1944 and early 1945.

Fluent in both German and French, he was a priceless asset as interpreter and interrogator.

The Army had seen his potential soon after it drafted him as a private in 1942, and he was tapped for service as a military intelligence officer in Europe, according to his daughter, Anne of Hopkinton.

After Mr. Henderson retired from active service in 1946 as a captain, he continued in intelligence in the US Army Reserve and was promoted to major in 1947, lieutenant colonel in 1952, and colonel in 1964, according to another daughter, Patricia Henderson Sauer of Everett.

“At the end of his life,’’ said Anne, “Dad told me that the single thing he was most proud of was that he had been drafted into the Army as a private and worked his way up to a ‘full-bird colonel,’ something very few achieve.’’

Mr. Henderson, who did all of his Reserve duty while teaching full-time in the Newton school system for 33 years and participating in many community matters, died Aug. 9 at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, three days after falling in his Needham home. He was 94.

He had lived in Needham since 1947 and after the death of his wife, Marnie (Wilde), in 2000, chose to live independently at their home.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the memories of war and its constant reminder of the fragility of life, Mr. Henderson chose to fill his own and those of others with a zest for living and learning. “Dad was a renaissance man,’’ Anne said. “He was a triple-plated character.’’

A longtime skier, Mr. Henderson was cross-country skiing at 88, still driving, traveling, participating in local theatricals, organizing poetry groups, and taking and teaching classes with Elderhostel Inc. His daughter recalled one class he took where he melted down the family silver and shaped it into some “pretty awful’’ jewelry. The family didn’t mind, she said, because it saved them from having to polish it.

He also was generous. A trustee of the Needham Free Public Library from 1980 to 1995, he established, with his wife, the Henderson Trust Fund to benefit the library. Library director Ann MacFate said some of the fund’s interest has been used for reference and large-print books.

Mr. Henderson, who had been “very much into the finances of the library,’’ set up the fund so that part of the interest would be turned back “as a hedge against inflation. He was a bit of a curmudgeon,’’ MacFate said fondly, “but always with a twinkle in his eyes and a smile on his face. He wasn’t tall in stature, but a giant in many ways.’’

Charles Frederic Clifford Henderson was born in Cambridge into a New England Yankee family. His ancestors started the Henderson Carriage Company in North Cambridge in the 1800s. Anne recalled “a family story that Henry Ford tried to persuade an early owner to get into the car business, but that the ancestor replied “he didn’t think the automobile was here to stay.’’

Charles graduated from Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H., in 1932 and from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, in 1937. He graduated from Weimar-Jena College in Weimar, Germany, in 1939.

Prior to entering the service, he taught French and German at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, and at Oakwood School in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

He and Marnie Wilde, a student at Cushing when he was on its faculty, were married in 1942.

On his discharge from active service in 1946 and under the GI Bill, Mr. Henderson earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard. He started teaching in Newton that year. He stressed the importance of education to his children. “He said it was the only thing in life that can’t be taken away from you,’’ Anne said.

For more than three decades, he taught a variety of subjects at Weeks Junior High School and at Newton South High School. “Charlie’s classes were never boring,’’ said former Weeks school colleague, William Powers of Needham. “He was respected and admired by students and colleagues, alike.’’

While teaching in public school, he also was teaching at US Army intelligence schools and attending to regular Army Reserve commitments locally. He served for longer periods away from home as instructor and academic commandant at the First United States Army Area Intelligence School at Fort George E. Meade in Maryland.

When he received a Meritorious Service Medal at Fort Meade on his retirement from the Reserve in 1969, he was cited for being responsible for “innovations on instructional techniques and the curriculum that have resulted in an unprecedented degree of effectiveness in instruction and have greatly enriched the intelligence program.’’

His retirement gave him more time to spend with his family, fulfill his craving to learn new things, attend cultural events, ski, and spend time with his feline friends - only adopted from shelters. There also was more time for helping seniors with tax returns and their other needs, though he never considered himself a senior, Anne said.

Three cats survive him, Guinevere, Roscoe, and Chloe. When he learned that the last two were 11 and “too old’’ for adoption, he had raced to the Brockton shelter and saved them.

When he wasn’t caring for his cats, he was out with his family. To the ballet, he wore with panache an opera cape Anne had given him, black wool on the outside and lined in red satin. He loved it, she said, “when kids in leather jackets hailed him, ‘Way to go, Count!’ ’’

In addition to his two daughters, Mr. Henderson leaves three grandchildren.

A celebration of his life will be held at Needham Free Public Library at 2 p.m. Sept. 20. A private burial will take place the following morning at Needham Cemetery.