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Columbia Missourian

Lee Henson, 72, fought for disability rights, brought humor to every aspect of life

By T.J. Thomson
August 27, 2013 | 10:12 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Lee Henson radiated humor in every area of his life. He brought the same levity to board meetings that he did to social occasions, livening up conversations and leaving impressions wherever he went.

"He always brought a sense of humor to the disability commission," fellow Columbia Disability Commission member Cheryl Price said. "Even when we were involved with hard topics, he would bring up something that would make us laugh and get us back on track.

"He did that in his life, too. Going out to dinner with Lee and seeing him in his office, he always had a sense of humor to bring to the topic."

Albert Lee Henson III died Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, at the Neighborhoods, an active retirement living community in Columbia. He was 72.

He was born Nov. 11, 1940, in Detroit, to Albert Lee Henson Jr. and Elizabeth Spray Henson. He married Maggie Billings in 1967.

Mr. Henson earned a bachelor's degree in English from Brown University in 1962 and a law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1974.

A mid-life bike accident left Mr. Henson paralyzed from the chest down, but the accident didn’t freeze his passion or giddy grin.

After moving to Columbia in 1990, he worked for three years at Services for Independent Living, a non-profit organization that emphasizes independent living regardless of physical disability, according to its website.

Following his work with the local nonprofit, Mr. Henson began a 20-year career at MU, championing campus accessibility and inclusion as its director of accessibility and Americans with Disabilities Act education.

“He was the ADA coordinator there (at MU),” Price said. “(He) did many, many things to increase the accessibility of the University of Missouri; not only in physical accessibility but program accessibility also.”

Friends and colleagues alike remember his wit, humor, and intelligence.

“He’s a quadriplegic, but in spite of the fact that he’s in a wheelchair, he has so much energy,” said Noor Azizan-Gardner, assistant deputy chancellor for diversity. "He's witty, he has a great sense of humor, and he's absolutely brilliant."

Mr. Henson's responsibilities at MU included communicating developments in disability law, benefits and resources to the campus, as well as handling informal complaints and concerns, according to his profile on the MU Human Resource Services website.

Mr. Henson, a member of the National Guard during the late 60s and early 70s, held student veterans in high regard, his wife, Maggie Henson, said.

"He has an innate admiration of people who defend our country,"Maggie Henson said. "They (student veterans) almost always became members of our family; he had a soft spot in his heart for all those guys."

In addition to his duties at MU, he also participated in many facets of social and civil life, including service to the Columbia Disabilities Commission, Columbia Northwest Rotary, Columbia Comprehensive Plan Task Force and the Columbia Vision Commission.

Mr. Henson is survived by wife of 46 years; his children, Alex Henson, and his wife, Liza, of Richmond, Va.; Kathy Gehrig, and her husband, Paul, of Issaquah, Wash.; and Nick and Carey Henson, of Columbia.

He is also survived by brother Judd Henson, of St. Petersburg, Fla.; sister-in-law Amy Montebello, of Strafford; brother-in law James Billings, of Springfield; and grandchildren Marcy and Erin Gehrig, of Issaquah, Wash.; Amelia and Anna Kate Henson, of Richmond, Va.; and Kallie Henson, of Columbia.

A gathering in Mr. Henson’s honor is planned for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at MU’s Stotler Lounge in Memorial Union, 518 Hitt St.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations can be made to the Lee Henson Scholarship Fund, in care of the MU Student Veterans Center.

Supervising editor is Allie Hinga.