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Band director honored: Park dedicated to Johnny Henry

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By Pat Hibbs

A multi-use park in Williston's central area was dedicated as the Johnny T. Henry Celebration Park in a ceremony on Saturday that drew more than 200 of Henry's friends and admirers of all ages, from tots to senior citizens.

Henry was the director of the Williston school bands for nearly three decades before his untimely death two years ago, an event that shocked and saddened the whole community.

Councilman Steve Holcomb, who supervises Parks and Recreation for the council, was the emcee for the ceremonies. Holcomb was also Johnny Henry's brother-in-law.

The Williston High School band began the ceremony by marching smartly to the park playing stirring music. Pastor Wesley Smith of the Church of God delivered a brief invocation.

Then Henry's grandchildren, Isaac and Aislinn, helped to unveil the handsome sign that anchors the park at its southeast corner.

As Mayor R. Gerald Hethcoat began to speak, the sun suddenly broke through the clouds that had plagued the area all morning. Hethcoat told the crowd that "God is smiling on this event."

Hethcoat spoke of Johnny Henry's dedication to the children of Williston, noting that he had been an inspiration, in life as well as in music, to generations of Williston's youth and to their parents.

He said that Henry had grown up in Williston, attended local schools and raised his own children here. Henry knew how to deal with young people, Hethcoat said, and encouraged hope for the future in all who knew him.

Hethcoat fondly recalled calling Henry a few days before Independence Day several years ago to ask for a band for the city ceremonies. "I'll see what I can do," Henry told him. And on Independence Day, in midsummer, when band members are scattered far and wide, Henry led a sparkling ensemble at the festivities.

That was the kind of man he was, said Hethcoat, someone who cared for his community and inspired others, especially his students, by his efforts.

City council President Debra French Jones commented on the fitness of the name of the park, saying that "celebrations take place here every day." She said that Johnny Henry was smiling down on the ceremonies honoring him and saying, "All is well with my soul."

New band director Alvin Johnson Jr., a 1999 graduate of WHS and a former student of Henry's, introduced a newly-formed choir, which sang a number whose chorus said, "I was changed for the better because I knew you." Johnson then led the band in two selections, a preview of the concert that took place the following day at the high school.

Travis Henry, Johnny's son, spoke for the family. He began with a favorite joke of his father's, in which the Lord walked the earth. He found a blind man kneeling and crying, and touched his shoulder and the man could see. He found a deaf man crying, and touched his shoulder and the man could hear. And then He encountered a third man kneeling and crying; when He asked what was the matter, the man said, "I'm a band director," and, Henry concluded, "The Lord got down and cried with him."

The crowd responded with an appreciative laugh and applause.

On a more serious note, Travis Henry said that he had loved and admired his father, and that, if he grew to be half the man his father was, he would consider himself a success.

He noted the proliferation of self-help books, and said that his father didn't need them, and neither did the rest of the family, because his father had been a living example of the qualities that make a person great.

He cited trust, saying that his father was a man of his word. Loyalty was crucial, he said. His father remained true to his roots and never forgot who he was and where he came from. He added selflessness and humility as Johnny Henry's defining characteristics.

Travis Henry told the quiet crowd that, a few days before his father passed away, Johnny made sure that the family knew that his funeral was not to be somber, but rather to be a celebration. Thus, the name of the park dedicated to a man who touched so many was particularly appropriate.

At Holcomb's invitation, several people rose to pay tribute to Henry. Parents lauded Henry's influence on their children. Alvin Johnson Jr. recalled his time in Henry's band, noted that it had influenced his choice of a career in music and said that Henry's memory will be celebrated forever. Kathryn Harris, longtime teacher and principal in the Williston school system, told the crowd simply, "He was precious even as a little kid."

With the sun shining and children playing in the park, the ceremony ended on a joyful note remembering a man respected and loved by the whole community.