Aug. 5, 1917-Jan. 17, 2013
OURAY – When Roger Henn was a small boy growing up in Ouray in the 1920s, he was fond of saying, his grandmother would whistle for a bull elk that lived in the neighborhood, and hang her laundry out to dry on its massive antlers. When she wanted the laundry to dry fast, she’d say, “Run, bull.”
Roger was a man who was short of stature and tall of tale. He loved to spin a yarn.
Another favorite story had to do with a fishing trip to Lake Lenore. (“Lenore.… What a languorous, sultry name to call a sparkling mountain lake,“ Henn once wrote.) He salted her waters with raisins which were high in iron, you see, put a magnet on the end of his fishing pole, and caught more fish than he could carry home.
“Roger was in the tradition of Mark Twain in telling tall tales,” said Dick Engahl, who got to know Roger well as his pastor in the last decade of his life. “He will be remembered for his wonderful contributions to our historical local understanding.”
Roger died in his sleep last Thursday, at the age of 95. Most everyone who knew him said it was the end of an era. In the wake of his passing, it is now their turn for telling tales. Most stories about Roger include by default “his Angie,” who preceded him in death by just eight months. Their marriage lasted almost 70 years.
“Every time you saw them walking, they were holding hands,” recalled Carol Harper of Ouray. “Angie came first. His Angie.”
Most folks around here remember Roger and Angie just like that, strolling the streets of Ouray in all kinds of weather with their little dog and introducing themselves to every newcomer that they saw. Naturally, the introduction would lead to an invitation for dinner, coffee, or a neighborhood get-together.
“Roger and Angie were the first people to welcome us to Ouray,” is a constant refrain among people in this town. Daughter Patty Ratliff confesses that she still thinks of her parents as the “King and Queen of Ouray.”
“The gift of hospitality and friendship is what they were known for,” said Harper. “The day we moved here in a blizzard, Roger walked by with his little dog Arbie and invited us for coffee. I will always remember that.”
Vicki Caldwell had a similar recollection of the Henn Welcoming Committee. “When we first moved to Ouray, we met Roger on the street and he said, ‘I understand we have two new Democrats in the county; you may not make it long, but we welcome you anyway.”
Roger was born on Aug. 5, 1917 in the Miner’s Hospital in Ouray. His parents were Professor Frank Henn and Stella LaRoche Henn, both employees of the Ouray School District. Professor Henn came to Ouray in 1908 and sent for his soon-to-be wife. Here they were married and lived very happily until the professor died of a liver condition called Brights disease when Roger was only 4 years old. Roger’s older brother Frank became a father figure to him, and his maternal grandmother also moved to Ouray to help raise the boys.
Roger, not surprisingly, was a spirited rascal of a kid. Patty recalls a story of how he and a young partner in crime went out one Halloween night, took all the light bulbs out of the old illuminated Box Cañon Park sign and threw them down in the canyon below “because they made such a wonderful noise.” The boys were caught, and got “locked in the pokey” for the night.
When Roger was 7 or 8, his mother decided she couldn’t make it in Ouray, and moved the family to Denver. Roger found work as a paperboy. One loyal customer bought a paper and tipped him a nickel every single day. Then came the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and the man who had been so kind to him threw himself out of a skyscraper window.
Roger graduated from Denver East High School and went on to graduate from the University of Denver in 1940. He and Angie met while they were both working for the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington D.C.
As the saying goes, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Roger called Angie up on the phone while she was home for the Christmas holiday in 1940 and proposed to her.
It was in the days of party lines. Just as he said, “Angie, please marry me,” a lady cut in and said, “Angie, you’d better just marry that young man.”
So she did. Soon after their wedding in 1942, Roger was drafted, and trained for service as a bombardier, but the war ended right before he was deployed.
Roger was then hired by the Taxpayers Federation of Illinois. There had recently been a tremendous scandal, Patty explained, in which the state treasurer Orville Hodge had absquatulated with some funds. Henn formed a legislative audit commission and became a fierce watchdog of the state’s coffers.
People tried to bribe him all the time, Patty said. But he was unwavering, standing up even to the mob boss when necessary.
Roger was later hired by the Union League Club of Chicago, a civic-minded organization with a wonderful art collection, which charged him with the broad mission of improving Chicago and Illinois. He was involved with saving the Sullivan Opera House, generating scholarships for inner-city youth, reforming the Chicago Sanitary District, working on rewriting the Illinois State Constitution, helping the United States Armed forces to improve its public image, and revising the methods by which Illinois judges were installed.
In 1980, Roger retired with Angie to his favorite spot in the world: his childhood hometown of Ouray. For many years after moving here, the couple were pillars of the First Presbyterian Church. When that congregation evolved in a more conservative direction, the Henns joined a new church in Ridgway: the United Church of the San Juans.
Engahl, a retired Presbyterian minister, was the new church’s first pastor. “We provided a [spiritual] home for them, and continued the tradition that they had otherwise known up there at the Ouray church of friendship and acceptance and tolerance,” he said.
Worshipping in Ridgway, just 10 miles down-valley, was literally a huge leap of faith for Roger who was forever a Ouray man. When he and Angie had to move out of the beautiful multistory home they had built on a hillside in Ouray, and bought a ranch-style home on Mary’s Road in the Idlewild subdivision, Roger hated it because of its Ridgway address. They later moved back into town, living in a condo near the Hot Springs Pool, before increasingly frail health forced them to relocate to Montrose (or as Roger called it, the Great Mud Flats) for the last few years of their lives.
The United Church of the San Juans’ current reverend Harry Strong also got to know Roger well over his last few years. He reflected that a lot of people in Ouray County know Roger mostly as the lovable local curmudgeon and rabble-rouser of his later years, but don’t necessarily know about the contributions he made as a younger working professional in Chicago, where Strong himself grew up.
Another little-known fact noted by Strong is that Roger helped revive the Presbyterian Church in Rico. The manse or parsonage there is called the Henn House, because of the work he did.
Roger was hard-wired for community activism (some would fondly call it pain-in-the-ass-ism), driven by the desire to improve the town he loved. Well into his 90s, he’d show up at city council meetings, rising to his full height during the Citizens Communication portion of the meeting to scold council for failing to properly tend to this or that aspect of public infrastructure. His complaints usually had to do with safety issues affecting senior citizens, and more often than not came laced with delicious humor.
Once, during earnest council discussion about the merits of installing sidewalk crossing signs at major intersections along Main Street, Henn observed that the most heavily frequented Main Street crossing wasn’t at an intersection at all, but rather the trail blazed by jaywalking locals between the post office and Duckett’s Market.
“He would come to meetings to verbalize his concerns and put them in historical context,” remembered former Ouray Mayor Pam Larson. “He was really a voice for his generation.”
Nor was he reluctant to write scalding letters to the editor of the Ouray County Plaindealer, or to address members of his congregation about some matter of importance during the “Joys and Concerns of the People.”
“Roger and Angie were not shy on rendering opinions about things,” Engahl said. “They used to sit in the front row every Sunday; at the time they both had increasing difficulty hearing, but still participated and sang and on occasion were known to get up and turn around and render an opinion on a subject. They were just wonderful people; two of a kind.”
Larson, whose family used to worship at the First Presbyterian Church, recalls that Roger was “an extreme gentleman when it came to women; he wanted the women to go in the door first.”
This tendency exhibited itself to the extreme when it came to Angie. “His dedication to her was always an amazing thing,” Larson said. “Actually, their dedication to one another. They were a married couple; they were boyfriend and girlfriend; they were best friends; they were brother and sister. They had pieces of all those things in their relationship. It was very unique.”
Strong agreed. “He always referred to her as ‘My Angie,’” Strong said. “He did say to me shortly before he died that ‘A lot of people think I’m a strong-willed person, but Angie got her way in our marriage 95 percent of the time.’ The sense of humor was still there; he knew exactly what he was saying.”
Roger wrote stories as well as he told them. He penned two books during his retirement in Ouray. In Journeyings Often, A Story of Ouray Told Through Its First Church, is an historical work about George Darley, the first Presbyterian minister in Ouray. The aptly titled Lies, Legends and Lore of the San Juans (And A Few True Tales) includes many of Roger’s favorite yarns. Chapter titles like “The Great Bull Story,” “The Scratched Ass Mine” and “Snow Snakes and Snow Mosquitoes” reflect the author’s impish sense of humor and propensity for tall tales.
Roger was a man who packed a big personality and bristling energy into a small dapper package. (Too short to play football in college, he turned instead to wrestling, at which he excelled.) In his retirement years, when he wasn’t busy storytelling or greeting newcomers, he channeled this energy toward the betterment of Ouray – whether that be securing a new roof for the Ouray County Historical Museum, helping to organize the construction of a new facade at the City Hall, or seeing the United Church of the San Juans’ new sanctuary grow from dream to reality.
He had a knack for spotting things that were dysfunctional and figuring out how to fix them. When he saw that the Cedar Hill Cemetery between Ridgway and Ouray was in major disrepair, he got a group of people together to form a cemetery board and saw to it that improvements were made.
He also helped kick-start fundraising efforts for the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team, helped to acquire the first van for Ouray’s senior citizens, started a Meals on Wheels program for seniors, and was involved with getting Ouray identified as a National Historical District.
He and Angie worked together to revive the Artist Alpine Holiday into the successful art show that it is today. He was also one of the original board members of the Regional Services Authority that oversees taxpayer funding for the Mountain Medical Center in Ridgway.
Of all these civic engagements, perhaps the one from which he took most pleasure was being a charter member of the Curmudgeon Club – a group of Ouray men who would get together over coffee on a weekly basis.
“One time I asked him what they did when they got together,” Patty said. “He told me, ‘We solve the world’s problems, but when it comes to solving Ouray’s problems, that’s too hard.”
Roger and Angie loved to soak at the Ouray Hot Springs Pool and were devoted members of the Polar Bear Club, a group of Ouray elders who meet at the pool on a regular basis for water aerobics.
Toward the end of their years together, after Angie took a terrible fall down an empty elevator shaft in their townhome in Ouray, Roger declared that the rest of his life would be devoted to his Angie. In photos of the couple from this time onward, it is easy to see the loving protectiveness in Roger’s body language, one arm wrapped firmly around his wife’s thin shoulders.
David Mullings, who owned the Ouray County Plaindealer for 15 years up to 2010, said he welcomed Roger's frequent visits to the editor's office to talk politics, history and Ouray life.
"I remember Roger fondly for at least three things. When I first arrived, Roger quickly introduced himself and let me know that I had a friend and a native's advice whenever I needed it," said Mullings. "Second, though he had a background in Chicago politics, his style was decidedly Ouray, firm in his opinions but never confrontational. Last, it was never just Roger to me, it was always Roger and Angie, who clearly were destined to be together."
Patty brought several of her father’s things to a private memorial service held at the United Church of the San Juans earlier this week. His hiking hat, and his jeeping hat. His letterman’s sweater from Denver University. The little “lucky shamrock” book he kept in his breast pocket after he was drafted in World War II. His Curmudgeon Club coffee mug. And, tied together with a satin ribbon, Roger and Angie’s wedding rings, which will be interred with the couple’s mixed ashes at Cedar Hill Cemetery next summer.
Roger, always a trailblazer, was a founding member of the Ouray Trail Group. One of his favorite hikes was along the Sutton Mine Trail to the Neosho Mine, with its well preserved blacksmith shop and boardinghouse sporting a tongue-in-cheek sign that advertises "Antiques 9-5:30." Here, he and Angie took part in the annual pilgrimage to hang laundry on a line that can be seen from Highway 550 across the Uncompahgre Gorge.
“Although he always told us not to, there’s a carving up there that says ‘Roger loves Angie’,” Patty confessed. “He did love her.”
Roger and Angie are survived by their three children Frank (Janet) Henn of Brandon, Mo., Patty (Steve) Ratliff of Montrose and Alan (Linda) Henn of Starkville, Mo. Survivors also include five grandchildren: Frank E. Henn, Stacey Gaspard, Joshua Myres, Dominic Henn and Katrina Henn, two great-grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews.
Donations in the couple’s memory can be sent to The Friends of the Wright Opera House, PO Box 17, Ouray, CO 81427; or The United Church of the San Juans, PO Box 775, Ridgway, CO 81432. A Celebration of Life service will be held for the Henns in Ouray this summer.