By Kara Henderson
Editor’s Note: Kara Henderson is a content manager for the Office of Academic Communications and Marketing and is the granddaughter of Donald M. Henderson.
Donald M. Henderson, who served as the University of Pittsburgh’s first black provost from 1989 to 1993, is remembered as someone who advocated for progress and opportunity that bettered the University — and embodied the triumph over the challenge.
Henderson, who retired to Florida, died June 8 of medical complications associated with congestive heart failure. He was 91 years old.
“Donald transformed the role of provost, and the University of Pittsburgh itself, during his tenure here,” Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said. “He was a master collaborator, a mentor to many, and a tireless visionary who walked the path – and more. I am grateful for his many contributions to Pitt and proud to do my part to help advance his brilliant legacy of cultivating learning, curiosity and leadership for the greater good.
Henderson’s accomplishments at the University included his participation in the Campus of the Future initiative with AT&T, which led to the installation of Pitt’s first fiber optic network; the consolidation of several libraries into the university library system; arranging and hosting Nelson Mandela’s visit to Pitt; and serve as the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center champion.
Through his actions and principles, Henderson also helped Pitt become a better and fairer institution.
“The University of Pittsburgh would not be the mighty academic institution it is today without the distinctive contributions of Donald Henderson,” said his friend and colleague Mark Nordenberg, Chancellor Emeritus of Pitt. “As provost, he elevated the academic mission in a way that laid the foundation for Pitt’s dramatic rise through the ranks of America’s top research universities. He helped create a framework for institutional progress that made Pitt a magnet for exceptional students and positioned us to recruit, support and retain the best faculty.”
Nordenberg added: “There was never anyone quite like Donald. He was a pillar of strength, a great listener and an unabashed respect. These attributes reflected his values and were coupled with a quiet self-confidence that left him allowed us to look at things through a lens that produced strong, caring relationships and outstanding results for the University.
Henderson’s formative years
Born February 22, 1931 in Poughkeepsie, NY, Henderson grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. The second of six children, he was raised by loving parents, Hugh and LeeHilda. Henderson attributed his academic and athletic success to their encouragement and prioritization of education.
While Henderson’s football prowess won him an athletic scholarship, he was drafted into the army in 1952 and served in the Korean War. He was honorably discharged and used his GI Bill to continue his education at Kent State University, where he earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in sociology.
In 1956, Henderson met Bebe Norris on Christmas Day at a party hosted by her Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers in Cleveland, Ohio. They married in 1959 and were described by the family as kindred spirits. The inseparable couple loved to travel and, in their first year of marriage, established an annual tradition inspired by “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”: they visited New York and followed in the footsteps of the film’s main characters.
After Kent State, Henderson came to Pitt to pursue a doctorate in sociology, which he completed in 1967. After graduating, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Akron and he was also a lecturer at Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Henderson left Ohio to work for Southern Illinois University, where he served as director of experimental studies. During this appointment, he served as Director of Higher Education Experience, a collaboration with the Office of Education, a division of the Department of Education, and supported by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The study explored the potential role the office could play in helping urban universities respond more appropriately than in the past to urban issues by devoting resources to black youth to help them enroll.
This project led Henderson to move to Washington, D.C., and associate with leaders from Temple University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Planning, and other universities and organizations.
A return to Pitt
Jack Daniel, the first chairman of what was then called the Department of Black Studies at Pitt, interviewed Henderson for the role of associate provost in 1970, following a call from the Black Action Society to increase the number of black administrators.
After meeting Henderson, Daniel said he was done with the research.
“Donald was a professor of sociology and recognized that the race-related achievement gap was an opportunity gap: if black people had equal opportunity, they would excel,” Daniel said. “Donald was an early innovator in creating equal opportunity programs for black students in higher education. He did the same for black staff, faculty, and administrators while consistently acting in the best interest of the university community as a whole.
In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obituary for Henderson, Daniel called him “iconic” and a “north star” to many in Pitt when top black leaders in higher education were scarce. “We were friends, brothers working together in the fight for freedom, justice and equality,” Daniel said.
Henderson was named provost in 1989, having established himself as a central part of Pitt and “a shrewd observer, an ironclad professional and the respected leader people looked to for solutions when there were problems. difficult to face,” said Nordenberg. .
As provost, Henderson stabilized the post and expanded its impact and influence and was instrumental in bringing the concerns and challenges of Black University members to the fore.
“Donald was one of the most important leaders in the history of the University of Pittsburgh,” Nordenberg said. “He was a precursor”
Linda Wharton-Boyd (A&S ’72, ’75G, ’79G), president of Pitt’s African American Alumni Council for more than a decade, described Henderson as “a man of great integrity, intelligence and compassion.”
“‘The Don’, the boss – as those who knew him at Pitt affectionately called him – was who black students, staff and faculty turned to for help, sound advice, guidance and a inspiring word,” Wharton-Boyd said. “Everyone respected him; he was a bright, caring guy with a comforting spirit.
A physical marker of Henderson’s time in Pitt—a clock dedicated to him by the Student Government Board when he retired in 1993—is on the corner of Bigelow Boulevard and Forbes Avenue.
Afterwards, Student Government Council President Jake Brody told the Post-Gazette of his dedication, “He was such a staunch supporter of the student experience and created a great relationship between the University and the students that we wanted to create a bit of a legacy. In classic Provost Henderson fashion, he was touched by recognition. It’s nothing he would ever seek.
After Henderson’s wife died in 2014, he focused on his family and friends, playing the flute, listening to jazz and blues records in his office, reading, writing poetry and watching tennis. .
Henderson leaves behind his son Mark Henderson, Pitt’s chief information officer (and his wife, Kim); son Gerald Henderson, former Pitt police officer; daughter Shelley Grimes; sister Shirley Logan; seven grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
In lieu of gifts, his family is requesting that memorial contributions be made to the Dr. Donald M. Henderson Endowed Scholarship, which will support black students in need.