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History Guy: President Henderson brought Washburn back after tornado

Tim Hrenchir
threnchir@cjonline.com
This week's History Guy video at CJOnline focuses on Washburn University President John Henderson, who led Washburn's recovery from a June 1966 tornado that destroyed hundreds of trees and five buildings on campus, including Rice Hall, shown here.

John W. Henderson became known as Washburn University’s “brick and mortar” president for leading Washburn’s successful recovery from the tornado that devastated its campus on June 8, 1966.

This week’s History Guy video at CJOnline focuses on Henderson, who announced 40 years ago Thursday — on Dec. 10, 1980 — that he would leave office the following year, which he then did.

Henderson, a native of Pennsylvania, worked in coal mines in that state before serving in the Marine Corps in World War II. He was 43 years old when he became Washburn’s president on Oct. 1, 1965.

A little more than eight months later, a massive tornado swept over southwest Topeka’s Burnett’s Mound and killed 16 people as it carved a diagonal path of destruction going northeast through the city.

The tornado crossed Washburn’s campus going from one corner to another while destroying nearly 600 trees, demolishing five major buildings and damaging all other structures, according to Topeka Capital-Journal archives. No one on campus was killed.

Under Henderson’s direction, the university set up mobile classrooms, replanted trees and began constructing new buildings.

Washburn finished replacing all its destroyed classrooms with its 1971 dedication of the building it later named Henderson Learning Resources Center in honor of John W. Henderson.

Henderson's presidency was also a time of increased dissent against the establishment.

He prevented some Washburn students from lowering campus flags to half staff in the wake of 1970’s fatal shootings of four students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio.

Henderson said Washburn’s flags wouldn’t be lowered unless the proper authorities approved that.

Washburn’s student council subsequently voted to lower the university’s flag, which was done on May 7, 1970, according to the university’s website. State and national flags on campus stayed at full staff.

In the decades since Henderson retired, Washburn has continued to build on the improvements it made during his tenure.

Henderson died at age 76 in June 1999.

Washburn University President John Henderson sits with his family in this photo taken in August 1965.