Willie Henderson Sr. believed with all his heart and soul that education was key to opening the doors to life's opportunities.
He not only believed it, but he lived it, sacrificed for it and advocated for it in the lives of his four children and all the children of Conyers-Rockdale.
In order to honor that legacy, the Henderson family created a scholarship in their father's memory and a gospel event that has become a time of reuniting, uplifting, celebrating and encouraging the best and the brightest.
This year will be the 22nd year of the Willie Henderson Sr. Memorial Scholarship is awarded to one senior in each high school. The fundraising Musical will be Sunday, June 22, 4 p.m. at Macedonia Baptist Church, where Henderson was a long-time deacon. The sought-after souvenir booklets will be on sale at the event.
Henderson was a pillar of the black community and helped lead Conyers through a relatively peaceful transition to integration in the school system. He was the first president of the Parent Teacher Association at the Bryant Street School, which became the JP Carr School for black children until full integration in 1979-1980.
When he passed away in 1991, leaders and officials across Rockdale came to pay their respects, including then-Mayor Charles Walker.
"(Walker) approached our family and suggested that we begin the scholarship in Daddy's honor because he deserved recognition for the innumerable contributions he made to the community and schools as one of the leaders of our community," wrote daughter Iris Henderson Vance in an email.
Henderson, a Rockdale native, attended a church school in the Shady Grove area that only went up to grade 10. Before the Bryant Street School, black children attended one-room church schools, which was the norm for most children in Georgia until the mid-century. In order to have those last two years of schooling and receive a high school diploma, Henderson moved in with relatives in Atlanta to attend high school there while working a part time job.
"That's kind of comparative to going to college," in those days, said Willie Henderson Jr. "He was determined."
When Henderson and his wife of 53 years, Ollie Mae (Elliott), began a family, they were equally determined their children would all go to college.
That meant Henderson would sometimes work three jobs at a time in order to provide for his family. Places he worked included: Beasley's Pharmacy, where as a young boy he had worked alongside Dr. Carter and Dr. Beasley; Callaway Mills; Gus Barksdale's family; Judge Clarence Vaughn's family; Charles Hunter's family; the Green Meadows Memorial Gardens cemetery; Sweetheart Plastics (now Dart Container).
While they were growing up, the Henderson children would see examples of black students receiving athletic scholarships, but not for academics. Willie Henderson Jr. said his father would say, "'We're always looking out for run-Johnny-run but what about the academic world? What about the 4.0s? We need to help them out."
"He emphasized that life's opportunities are there for the taking and not for the giving," wrote Iris Henderson Vance, herself a retired educator. "We grew up knowing that if we wanted to be successful, we had to gain the necessary knowledge and skills to then apply in our lives beyond the classroom."
"I think he would be pleased to know we heard what he was trying to teach us," said Willie Jr.
His wife Ollie Mae passed way in 2007 after raising her family and serving as the director of the scholarship board of trustees. All four adult children went to college; Iris Henderson Vance, Clifford Henderson, Sandra Henderson White, and Willie Henderson Jr. The family produced three educators and one doctor. Sandra is a elementary teacher who retired after 37 years in Rockdale County Public Schools, first at the former Main Street School and then at Honey Creek Elementary. Iris Henderson Vance also is a retired elementary school teacher, retiring after taught six years at the JP Carr school and then 26 years at Pine Street Elementary' s first grade. Sandra's daughter Cassaundra White is a high school teacher in DeKalb. And Iris's son, Dr. John Edward Vance Jr., attended Morehouse College and Emory University School of Medicine to become an internal medical doctor in Albany, Ga.
John Edward Vance graduated from Salem High in 1992 and was one of the first scholarship winners, who are determined by each school's counselor. Besides setting the scholarship criteria in the beginning, the family does not participate in the winners' selection, which is done by school counselors, explained Willie Jr., so John's selection was a pleasant surprise.
If Willie Henderson Sr. were alive today, he would be 100 years old. "I really think he would be pleased seeing what we're doing and realizing what he put in our lives and minds, we really got it," said Willie Jr.
"We want to really thank the community for catching our dream like we have and supporting it the way they have. We've been getting support from the church and the business community and even the students." Previous scholarship recipients, as they go on to careers in fields such as law and medicine, sometimes return to give back to the fund that helped them out. That support ensures the effects of Henderson's work continues to improve the lives of Rockdale's children today.
For more information on the scholarship or the event, email email@example.com