A childhood in a blue-collar neighborhood in Hartford provided Mandred Henry with lessons about race and class that he would carry with him the rest of his life.
"We were poor. But you know, we didn't know it because everyone was poor," he said two years ago in an interview with the Martha's Vineyard Times. "It was a multicultural neighborhood long before the term was even coined, and my neighbors were Jewish, Irish, and African-American. . . . Growing up surrounded by difference made me realize that it is very important not to generalize about anyone. If you do, you're likely to be very wrong."
Retiring to the Vineyard 14 years ago, Mr. Henry immersed himself in helping people of all ages and backgrounds. He was president for 10 years of the Vineyard's NAACP chapter, was a hospice volunteer, and worked on behalf of inmates at Dukes County House of Correction.
Mr. Henry, who had spent nearly three decades at Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Worcester, died of congestive heart failure Saturday at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He was 73 and had lived in Edgartown.
"He was known as Mr. Martha's Vineyard because of his practice of ensuring that people were welcomed, felt comfortable, and enjoyed all the benefits the island would bring," said Charles Ogletree, a longtime friend and a professor at Harvard Law School. "He was particularly driven to ensure that Martha's Vineyard was an inclusive community, accepting people from every walk of life.
"He made sure that people not only saw the beauty of the island, but would learn about its historic significance of being a place for comfort and intellectual nourishment, particularly for African-American families."
Mr. Henry "was a leader and he stood up for what was right, whether he was standing by himself or not, that's what attracted me to him," said his wife, Laurie Perry Henry. "He was fearless, but he was also gentle -- a real humanitarian."
"He was a strong but compassionate man who cared about bringing people of all nationalities and faiths and beliefs together," said his son, Mandred Jr. of Falmouth. "He was our patriarch. He was our rock and someone I always looked to for strength."
Mandred Thomas Henry was the eldest of two children and a seventh-generation descendant of Venture Smith, who had been taken from his home in New Guinea in the 1700s and was a slave until buying freedom for himself and his family.
An athlete growing up in Hartford, Mr. Henry played football at Weaver High School and at the University of Connecticut, family members said.
"He was always so full of fun and so likable," said his sister, Coralynne Henry Jackson of Hartford.
Mr. Henry married Lorraine Waters and worked for a redevelopment authority in Hartford while volunteering to read to the blind. His mother had gradually lost her sight and other family members were blind.
When his marriage ended in divorce, he moved to Worcester and began selling insurance for Blue Cross. There he married Lilo Weiss and, with her, brought up her two daughters as his own.
Their daughter Susi Ryan, of Worcester, said that because she and her mother and sister are white, the family defied convention.
"At that time racially diverse families weren't really accepted," she said, but Mr. Henry shrugged off criticism and stares. "We weren't raised as stepchildren, we were raised as one family."
Even once Mr. Henry moved to the Vineyard, said Ryan's sister, Angi Perron of Milford, N.H., "he'd just say, 'These are my kids,' and people would look at him. He would not explain."
"Color was not an issue in the family," Ryan said, adding that her father "taught us to love what we do and always have a sense of civic duty to others who had less than us."
Offered early retirement, Mr. Henry left Blue Cross and Blue Shield to move to the Vineyard full time in 1993. His second marriage also ended in divorce.
"He loved his job, but wanted to get out in time to enjoy his life and fish and to golf on the Vineyard," his son said.
Retirement was hardly that, though, as Mr. Henry soon became a man about the island's social causes -- a mentor for schoolchildren and jail inmates and president of the NAACP chapter.
"I always loved the Vineyard. It's a remarkable place for love and friendship between black and white people," he told the Martha's Vineyard Times in July 2005. Still, Mr. Henry added, "There is more that needs to be done before it truly is a color-blind society."
Ogletree said his friend was instrumental in helping bring influential speakers to the island's summer lecture series, such as US Senator Barack Obama, filmmaker Spike Lee, and civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers.
"Mandred lit up the room when he walked in, and yet he was always so humble that he let all the voices around him be heard," Ogletree said. "And he was a man who was driven to make everybody believe that Martha's Vineyard was their personal home, even if they were there for just a day or a weekend, or were a summer vacationer."
"We're amazed with him and what he's done with his life since retiring to this island," Perron said. "He touched so many people's lives. We're so proud of him -- he made such an impact."
"He was a proud man," Ryan said. "He came from a proud family, and he had every reason to be proud."
Mr. Henry wore his achievements lightly. Asked about his successful leadership of the NAACP chapter, he told the Martha's Vineyard Times:
"I guess I did a good job. It seems like someone who has been blessed like I have should be able to reach out a hand to others who needed to feel that human comfort."
In addition to his wife, sister, son, and two daughters, Mr. Henry leaves another daughter and son, Corinne and Floyd, both of Providence; four grandsons; four granddaughters; and a great-grandson.
A funeral will be held tomorrow at 11 a.m. in Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven.