Carolyn Henderson has plans — for her life, for her late husband’s legacy, for her responsibilities as the newest member of the Calhoun County Commission. They seem jumbled together, a pretzeled trio of hopes, though she doesn’t seem to mind the lack of separation.
The first two are intensely personal. She and Eli Henderson were married 55 years, a tag team of opinions and spunk, and it’s only been two months since he died from COVID-19. But the latter? That’s public stuff. Political plans are the people’s business.
“Will you tell me about them?” I asked.
“Not at this time,” she said.
“Can I twist your arm?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
And that was that.
So we’ll have to wait for Henderson to unveil those plans for her district, Calhoun County’s 3rd, on her own schedule. I haven’t a clue what she’s talking about. Given that she’s been on the job all of a month — Gov. Kay Ivey tapped her Sept. 10 as Eli’s replacement — there’s no reason to press the issue, for now.
The mistake we’ll make is if we assume Henderson, the county’s longtime registrar, is either a spousal placeholder or a disinterested politician. She is neither.
She sought the governor’s appointment. She plans to run for a full term when this one ends. Whether she proves competent is up to her, obviously. But those decades as a listening post for her husband — one of Calhoun County’s most influential modern-day politicians, perhaps more so than former Oxford Mayor Leon Smith — makes this, in a sense, not much change at all.
“It’s been business as usual since the first day I took office because I had been with him for 55 years, and a lot of that was when he was an elected official,” Henderson said. “I had to be the sounding board every evening, and every morning and every weekend. There was nothing going on that I didn’t know about it.”
Well, up to a point. Eli wouldn’t discuss voting matters or confidential topics, Henderson says, and I tend to believe her. But living with Eli handed her a front-row seat to many of the county’s seminal moments of the last four decades, from the Army’s chemical-weapons incinerator to Fort McClellan’s closure and cleanup to the endless requests, some legitimate, others hardly, for funding and repairs and whatnot.
She gave Eli advice, “even though a lot of times he didn’t take (it).”
She gave Eli her opinions. They were husband and wife, not peas in a pod.
“Oh, no, I disagreed” with him sometimes, she says. “I’m from the mountains of Tennessee, so you better know that I disagreed. I’ve never been quiet about that. I never told him what he wanted to hear.”
It was there in Tennessee, in the tiny town of Whitwell a short drive from Chattanooga, that Henderson took her father’s lectures to heart. Those simple lessons on honesty and handshakes came with her when they moved to Alabama.
“I’m the type person that if you ask me a question, and if you don't want a true answer, don't ask. That’s just the way it is,” she says,
None of these pleasantries overshadows the obvious — that in early August she buried her 83-year-old husband, an unsurmountable loss no amount of commission-fueled joy can ease. “This virus is a terrible thing,” she says. Slightly, her voice changes. “I had it, and thank goodness I got through it, but Eli couldn't. The next go around I have with that virus, I don't know what’ll happen.”
This is the intertwining of her life’s current chapters: her family’s loss; her new job; her personal grief. She’s not just Eli Henderson’s political replacement. She’s Eli Henderson’s widow and his replacement. Professionally, what was his is now hers.
But “let me tell you something, and this is from my heart,” she says. “I’d give everything I have if I could have him back, if I could just have that.”
Instead, she has Eli’s office.
She’s made it hers, though. She’s redecorated it, adding greenery and personal touches and removing some of her husband’s stuff. Eli wore his beliefs on his sleeve, or his hat, and displayed them on his office walls. Not everyone agreed with his causes or politics, though the criticism never swayed him.
Carolyn Henderson is her own person, her own commissioner.
“I think an office is for all the people all the time ... You have to represent everyone and respect the wishes of everyone,” she says. “With plants, and it may be the woman in me, I want everyone who comes in to sit down and feel comfortable with me.”
Spun in her direction, she also has to feel comfortable sitting in her late husband’s office, a place that could bring knee-buckling grief. But it doesn’t. It is her place, too. A place of healing.
“I do feel close to him being in that office,” she says. “I think I would have made it fine if I didn’t have the job, I would have the other (revenue) job, but it does make it easier.
“It seems like I have a purpose, and everybody has to have a purpose in life, and my purpose is taking care of District 3, because he loved it.”