WELLBORN — Nobody ever beat Eli Henderson to the punch when it came to jokes about the 83-year-old Marine Corps veteran’s height.
During meetings of the Calhoun County Commission, on which Henderson served for years, it was common for the diminutive commissioner to ask friend and colleague J.D. Hess whether the rides at the annual county fair — over which Commissioner Hess presided — would allow someone of his height, given safety restrictions and size minimums. Henderson cracked wise about riding ponies while others rode horses, often in the same meetings in which he halted regular business to shine a spotlight on his fellow commissioners and county employees for their work, promoted community programs like Toys for Tots and — every now and then — got his audience to shout “War Eagle,” just for kicks.
Henderson’s true size was hard to gauge, watching him every other week with the family he had made inside county offices. Physically, he looked a bit over 5 feet tall. Spiritually, Henderson was a mountain.
The scores of people who visited his memorial service Sunday afternoon at Wellborn High School gym, two days after his death after a weeklong battle with COVID-19, were evidence of the man’s impact on his community.
“It’s not going to be easy to step into those shoes,” said David Grise, commandant of the Marine Corps Reserve’s Toys for Tots program in Calhoun County, one of dozens of visitors to arrive in the first hour of visitation.
People gathered a few minutes before noon, lined up beside the concession stand overlooking the basketball courts. Below, Henderson lay in repose, surrounded by family members, photos, flowers and wreaths. The American flag’s blue field of stars covered the bottom half of his casket. Above him hung a banner — “#16, Eli Henderson, Class of ’57.” Just to his side, his wife of 55 years, Carolyn, greeted those who had come to mourn Henderson’s passing.
Most visitors wore masks as they moved through the gym and spoke with family members. Bottles of hand sanitizer were set on two pillars on either side of the gym. Several people held hands and hugged as they spoke with family members, though seating was spaced for social distancing throughout the gym.
Collin Raye’s “Love, Me (If You Get There Before I Do)” played over the gym’s loudspeakers. The devastating country song covers death and loss and the afterlife in just shy of four minutes. Bobby Day’s “Rockin’ Robin” played, too; that tune is about a bird who likes to rock and roll. Sad gathering or not, it was an Eli gathering. Some smiles would be had.
Those closest to Henderson seemed to understand how big an empty space he’d left behind. Michael Webb, a sergeant with the Anniston Police Department and a member of the Calhoun County School Board, said he’d known Henderson since he was around 8 years old. Webb grew up and graduated from Wellborn High in 2008, he said. He saw Henderson at every athletic event at the school, and he said that Henderson, even 50 years after his own graduation, maintained deep ties there. Outside of school, though, Henderson had shaped much of Webb’s life and his views on service to the community.
“I am where I am today from watching him and from him telling me the things I needed to know,” said Webb. “He taught me more about politics and life and giving back to people more than anybody else I know.”
Grise had known Henderson for about a decade, he said, and found him to be determined, capable and honest.
“He’d tell you the truth,” Grise said. “He wouldn’t beat around the bush.”
Webb’s admiration for Henderson was clear when he discussed the way the commissioner had handled his politics, leadership and generosity; Webb seemed to measure his own work with the school board and as a police officer in the community against Henderson.
He said he felt like he would come up short, compared to Eli.
“I’ll never be able to do it the way he’s done it,” Webb said. “I’ll never be as good as he is. He’s an amazing man.”