In Memoriam

Lawrence Henry, 1948-2009

The death of an American (Spectator) original.

By , , , and 2.13.09

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Wlady Pleszczynski

On Tuesday we received word that our beloved columnist, Larry Henry, died on Monday, February 9 -- his 61st birthday -- at Youville Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of complications of kidney disease. It was a condition about which he wrote soberly, expertly, and terrifyingly, yet always with utter clarity and not without his characteristic American and human charm. Now you know why for the longest time I found it a most reassuring pleasure to append this bioline to his Friday columns, "Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts." Whatever his condition, no one wielded a healthier pen.

Just as we revived our website in early 2002, Larry came along, a Godsend. He wrote like a dream, and his interests were ultra-catholic: politics, family, church, community, books, golf, tennis, holidays, business, economics, America, old cars, fruitcakes, life. He came from all over. Born in South Dakota, high school in Minnesota, college in New York, PR and other work in Los Angeles, rock band tours wherever. He'd been hellish in his youth, rough on father (his "My Vietnam War" could be the finest thing of its kind), just one of many rough patches. By the time I knew him he was serene, with beautiful wife and children, and soon to move from the Garden State to Massachusetts. I was sad for him then -- no one had ever described a lovelier New Jersey.

But he didn't leave before also taking an appropriate shot at Sen. Robert Torricelli -- and in so doing he revealed something about his own troubling health. It was a gun to his head, yet he functioned regardless, forever busy, pursuing countless interests, paying attention to everything around him, filing impeccable fresh copy every week, sometimes twice a week. Simply remarkable.

I met him only twice, once when he was visiting his sister in Northern Virginia -- he saw Jed Babbin the same afternoon we met -- then a few years later a day or two after Christmas, at a Borders, this time in the company of his sweet younger son, Joe. His arm was in a sling, one of the side-effects of a daily life -- now requiring frequent dialysis -- that he endured without complaint. He could still drive, after all. I walked him to his car, one of those big old American contraptions, as I recall, and he seemed happy as heck as he and Joe drove off.


*****

Shawn Macomber

In the early 1970s, Larry Henry authored a slim volume for Scholastic on the mechanics of songwriting entitled, Rock and Roll Songwriter's Handbook. Typical of Larry, the book was a multidimensional work. It might help you write a decent tune or live a fuller life…or both. Everything was in the mix. "Anything that takes so little effort to create demands even less energy to appreciate," Henry advised. "A cliché will surprise your listener so little that he won't even hear it. If you need to communicate, you need to be original."

Larry lived his word. He was nothing if not original -- and he was something, indeed, so that settles that. Readers became acquainted with his singular voice and intellect through sparkling, wide-ranging columns exploring love, life, regret, politics, illness, faith, the little things, the big things, the minute, the transcendent.

Again, it was all in the mix.

I myself was privileged enough to know the man a bit; to experience first hand the generous spirit, encouragement and personal kindness Larry extended freely, even while carrying the burden of a fierce, sadly implacable illness. I've also had the distinct honor of meeting his remarkable, lovely wife, Sally, as well as his beloved sons, Bud and Joe -- brilliant, unique little guys, whom Larry had taught, in true Rock and Roll Songwriter's Handbook style, the importance of not only doing the hard work necessary to internalize the backbeat of the rules, immutable truths and wisdom accumulated by humankind between the vast expanse of time immemorial and our comparative eye-blink of a life, but also the joy and freedom of having the ability to improvise in an uncertain world. Larry was that kind of guy.

I couldn't be more sorry they've lost a husband and father. Yet I take a measure of comfort knowing such great living testimonies to Larry will carry on beyond him.

Larry Henry was better than his time, certainly, and while I don't think his writing has (thus far) received near the attention or acclaim it deserves, it speaks very highly of The American Spectator and its Editorial Director Wlady Pleszczynski that Henry found an enthusiastic home at the magazine. Larry was proud of the affiliation. We should be prouder that Larry saw fit to hang his shingle here.

Once after some falafel, Larry took me to one of his favorite stores, Brookline News and Gift -- a crazy place, overflowing with oddities and novelties, clearly organized around the idea that an intriguing mass trumped coherence. Larry slowly strolled the tight aisles, smiling as he leaned into get a closer look at the wonders of this or that shelf, perfectly content to go searching for the bric-a-brac in a curio haystack.

"What do you like, Larry?" I asked him.

"Oh," he replied, "I think I like it all."

Such openness to the vast wonders of the world is a rare thing, to be sure, and an example we would all do well to follow. Larry, friend, I hope you found what you believed was waiting for you on the other side. I'm going to miss you.


******

Jeff Jacoby

Larry Henry was a great talker, but the last time I saw him he couldn't speak. That was on New Year's Day, when my wife Laura and I went to visit him at the Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston. He looked miserable and uncomfortable and more than a little frustrated with all the tubes and monitors he was hooked up to, and with the struggle to breathe through his tracheotomy, and with the exhaustion that comes from pushing an ailing and defective body through an endless gauntlet of medical care and hospital stays.

"How are your boys?" he mouthed soundlessly. I filled him in on the latest. In the 10 or so years we'd known each other, we had exchanged countless emails and had conversations on every topic, but above all on the delights and puzzles of fatherhood. Like Larry and Sally, Laura and I have two sons; our youngest, like theirs, was adopted from Guatemala. It was politics and current events that first sparked our connection -- Larry contacted me out of the blue one day with an idea for a column about Christian conservatives -- but it was the common experience of raising sons that turned an acquaintance into a friendship.

I asked Larry one time what he thought of suspending reading privileges as a punishment for a bright, book-loving kid -- my older boy, Caleb -- who was misbehaving in some egregious way. He replied by describing the sort of discipline that had worked with Bud, his oldest -- and how completely flummoxed he was to discover that it had exactly the opposite effect on Joe, his younger son. "Obviously, I don't know a thing," Larry emailed. "And I'm not qualified to offer advice on Caleb." He offered a few suggestions anyway, then wound up with: "It's hard to say, and no one knows but you. And if you ever want to discover how little you really know about kids, just have another one."

 "Don't know a thing"? Larry knew more things, and lived a life brimming with more experiences, than any three people I can think of offhand. From writing advertising copy to running a local paper, from playing in a rock band to OD'ing on the Golf Channel, from losing his kidneys to finding God, there seemed to be nothing Larry hadn't done, nothing he couldn't turn into a timely and topical column. Every columnist in America had something to say about Sarah Palin last fall. But only Larry Henry could have produced "Memories of Wasilla," his recollection of carousing and taking flying lessons in Sarah Palin's hometown. "We haven't had anyone so interesting on the national scene in a long, long time," he wrote in that column. You could almost say the same about Larry.


*****

Jeremy Lott

A great mass of people, from parents to priests to professors, believe that there is nothing more tragic than the death of a child. Some thinkers even hold out a child's death as proof against God's existence or at least his -- sorry, His -- goodness.

Me? I've always found failed second chances far more depressing. A child might make something of himself. A second chancer made something and lost it for some reason. The act of him getting that back can be far more interesting and inspiring than the stories of those people who seem to rise through life without effort.

Apologies for the morbid thought but Larry Henry died this week, many years after his kidneys and their replacements had quit. This was both expected and not. I find it unbelievably sad.

Last August, Henry thought he would get a new kidney transplant and reflected, on the eve of what he thought would be his new lease on life, on his "glorious career."

Looking back on his "working life" as a writer, Henry was admirably clearheaded. "I have managed my career very poorly," he wrote. "I have never published in the most famous or prestigious publications." It wasn't that he hadn't "had chances" but when those chances "came up, I always did something wrong."

Henry confessed that he "sure would like to figure out…how to make a success of myself..."

He was right about his lack of success where fame is concerned. Go to Wikipedia and type in "Lawrence Henry." You won't find an entry.

One thing he was wrong about, though. Henry said, "I know how well I write: as well as anybody." He knew that he had the stuff but I fear that he went to his grave thinking that he was only a good writer when in fact he was capable of greatness.

I don't have to make the case. Just go read some of his columns. The political ones are good enough, with their unpredictable mix of idealism and fatalism and the occasional wacky idea thrown in. But it was when he wrote about what he knew that he really shone. He could make the reader see what he saw and feel what he felt.

Larry believed that his diary columns were too self-indulgent and occasionally apologized for them. That kills me. I'm sorry there won't be more of them.

*****

W. James Antle III

Lawrence Henry and I once lived the same double life. By day, we were mild-mannered Bay Staters, inconspicuous among the latte-and-Volvo set. By night, alone at our keyboards, we were wordsmiths of the vast right-wing conspiracy, somehow dropped behind enemy lines. We were both columnists for Enter Stage Right, the most enduring of the anti-Clinton conservative webzines that appeared in the 1990s, occupying that part of the Internet Al Gore wished he'd never invented.

"Please, call me Larry," he began one of his many emails to me, as he became one of my most intelligent and cherished correspondents. I first knew Larry as a creature of the Internet, but he had all the qualities online denizens lacked -- civility, grace, humor, and learning. People who write and comment on the Internet under the cloak of anonymity are often hateful and angry. Larry was loving and cheerful.

Once I spied a column of Larry's being savaged by some posters on Free Republic. These anonymous irritants were clearly Larry's intellectual inferiors and I felt compelled to rise to my friend's defense -- under my own pseudonymous handle. Just minutes after doing so, I received a "Freep mail" message from Larry thanking me for my supportive words. When I revealed my identity to him, he wrote, "Aha! A friend in disguise!"

Most of all, Larry understood there was so much more to life than politics. That's a perspective many of us political scribblers sorely lack. Though Larry was a sage observer of the political scene, his best writing was about almost anything else -- his past jobs, his adventures as a rock-and-roller, his faith, and his family, especially his beloved boys. Larry could -- and, in fact, did -- write better copy about changing dirty diapers than most writers ever churn out about the weightiest of subjects.

Larry and I would occasionally meet for lunch at the Pour House on Boylston Street in Boston, usually when he was in the city for a visit to some hospital, Mass General perhaps. I remember our first meeting. I finally recognized him from a photo I'd seen of him posted online. I walked up to him and introduced myself. He never expected W. James Antle III to be a 25-year-old information technology professional. "You never know what people you correspond with on the Internet are going to look like," he said.

We had some great conversations. He was the only man I knew who could talk with equal ease about the Bush Doctrine, the bass licks in Rick James' "Super Freak," and the Nicene Creed. I remember our conversations before moving to the Washington area, where I would eventually work for the magazine that had become the home to so many of our writings. His sister lived in the same northern Virginia town as me and he said he hoped to visit when his health permitted.

I never saw Larry again, though we traded emails. During his final illness, I kept making a mental note to send him an encouraging email but something "important" always got in the way. To my everlasting shame. It's sad to think of Larry being gone. But not discouraging, for our trust is in the saving power of our Lord. Rest in peace, old friend.

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About the Author
Wlady Pleszczynski is editorial director of The American Spectator and the editor of AmSpec Online.
About the Author

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.
About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.