Aleck Henderson 1874-1957

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Chicago, Cook, Illinois, United States
Year range
1874 - 1957

Alexander Henderson — Aleck — was “something of a rebel” in his son’s words, which may conceal more than they tell. He spent most of his life working either in sales or for the government, but didn’t have a “career” as we think of it. He had a religious sensibility but refused to call any human being “reverend.” He so strictly eschewed the role of the dictatorial patriarch that he may have inadvertently shorted his own children on guidance.

He wasn’t quite four years old when his mother died, and had just turned seven when the family left Scotland and crossed the Atlantic on the Circassia in April 1881. He and brother Tom dropped crumbs to the fish over the side.

They wound up in rural Iowa, where Aleck attended grade school. The family resettled in Chicago in the early 1890s, where he narrowly escaped death in the evening rush hour of November 8, 1893. Aleck boarded the next-to-last car of the six-car Blue Island commuter train that left the Loop at 5:50 pm. The cars were made of wood, with stoves inside to keep them warm, and were pretty well packed with 25-30 people in each. By 6:30, a few minutes behind schedule, the train stopped at the Eggleston station, off 71st Street between Eggleston and Shields.

As the train began to pull out, the people on the platform, who had just gotten off, began shouting and screaming. Those still on the train scrambled for the doors and windows. Out of the foggy dusk came the Kansas City “vestibuled express.” Its engineer threw his engines into reverse but it was too late. In a collision heard four blocks away, the heavy engine threw the rear car of Aleck’s train six feet into the air and plowed into the back half of the next-to-rear car.

The mass of splintered wood and iron immediately caught fire, probably from the stoves. But no one could hear anything, because the steam valve on the express train’s engine had broken. Its roar drowned out all other sounds, and its clouds of steam burned many who had survived the impact. There were no lights to be had for 15 minutes, and the windows of the cars were coated with steam. Neighbors and other passengers ran to help, carrying buckets from nearby houses to put out the fire, taking a bench from the depot to break in through the train windows, and turning nearby homes into hospitals.

Supposedly one newspaper reported him dead. I haven’t seen the clipping, but the mistake would have been an easy one to make. He suffered burns but lived to note the 50th anniversary of the Eggleston wreck in his date book in 1943.

Aleck attended the University of Illinois at Urbana, graduating with a liberal arts degree in 1902, aged 27. For eight years he sold dry goods for Butler Brothers. I’m not sure which of his selling jobs involved travel, but several did. He later said that the worst place he ever had to spend the night was Sundance, Wyoming. Why? We don’t know; maybe he wouldn’t say.

In 1908, he married Elin Boring, the 21-year-old daughter of Swedish immigrants and Mission-Friend (pietistic) stalwarts August Boring (ne Andersson) and Sanda Stenberg. How they met we have no idea but their humor and good spirits seem to have surmounted any cultural or age barriers. It’s possible that he filled something of the role of a son in that all-daughter household, and they were a family unlike his own. We don’t know.

In 1910 the couple moved west where Aleck went into business for himself. The business didn’t pan out and they returned about 1914; thus both Eleanor and Ronald were born in Chicago. The family story is that all Henderson men were to name their first-born sons Robert — Aleck’s brothers Jim and Tom both did so, and the two very different young men had to be known in the family as “Jim’s Robert” and “Tom’s Robert” — so Aleck’s unwillingness to compound the confusion may have been another sign of his maverick nature.

Although he doesn’t mention it in a work history he outlined in the 1930s, he and Ellen and their two children moved out of Chicago to Moline in the late 1910s. He seems to have held a job at the Rock Island Arsenal, and after World War I participated in a program in which the houses built for workers were sold to them on good terms.

It all came apart when Ellen died suddenly of a stroke apparently brought on by a chronic ear infection which the doctors of the day were unable to diagnose properly, and lacking antibiotics would have been unable to treat in any case. Aleck and the children moved back to Chicago, where he did his best to raise them with extensive help from the Aunties — Ellen’s sisters Ruth and Emy Lou and Aleck’s sister Elizabeth (“Beesh”).

But there’s no doubt the kids were on their own a lot more than they would have been if Ellen had lived. Ron had adventures in the city, discovering a lifelong love of astronomy at the brand-new Adler Planetarium. On one occasion he got thoroughly soaked at Buckingham Fountain and walked all the way to the Aunties’ then home in the 4400 block of North Paulina, being completely dry by the time he got there. Eleanor got in and out of a quickly annulled marriage. Ron won a scholarship from Tilden Tech High School to the University of Chicago, but without much guidance studied only what he wanted to and failed to keep the scholarship after the first year. The aunties put him through business college, and he wound up going downstate to work in an office job at the University of Illinois and began taking courses there — a fortunate event as it proved.

The Depression did Aleck’s checkered work history no good. He did a stint as a security guard at the 1933 World’s Fair, and later worked a good bit for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. In 1936 he married Evalyn Louise Warner, a Chicago schoolteacher.

Being a maverick didn’t make Aleck radical. When World War II came and son Ronald decided to apply for status as a conscientious objector, the family shunned him. It seems to have been a notion clear outside their experience — one story has Eleanor quietly asking her brother if he was a Nazi sympathizer! The ice broke only when Uncle Jim’s Robert – later a writer for the New Yorker magazine — came home from the military and heard the story. “Ronnie did that? I wish I had,” he declared, or words to that effect, and the family began to speak to him again.

Aleck's get-togethers with brothers Tom (living in Seattle) and Jim (living on the far south side of Chicago) were happy affairs where the puns flowed like water and pipe smoke filled the room. But when Tom and Jim made a trip back to Scotland in the 1950s, Aleck’s severe arthritis left him unable to join them. After Eva died of a broken hip, Aleck could no longer live alone and ended his days in the Hooper Rest Home in Canton, near his son and his four, then five, grandchildren. (Rick was born in Canton, and brought over to see “Grandpa Henderson” on his first trip home.) Often on a weekend day we would all come to visit, staring shyly at this wizened old man with a beard, until being dismissed to play outside in lawn and the driveway.

Aleck was always quick with vers d’occasion — he and brother Jim exchanged rhymed letters circa 1914 about their being bad correspondents. He either proposed to Eva in verse or recounted the event (“Are we old enough to marry, do you think?”). The talent did not desert him even after much else had.

AUTUMN (November 1949)

My notebook shows no record here;

My days, like Fall’s, are in the sere,

and red is on the vines.

My joints are still, - my movements slow

But sitting idle irks me, so

I pen these foolish lines.

Now Eva brings me in a spray

Of brilliant red from autumn’s vine

Its message to me seems to say:

The sun, tho hid, again will shine

My scarlet coat is warm and gay -

“’Twill bring glad thoughts to cheer the day.”

Let It Suffice. (April 1950)

Let it suffice! The Powers that be

have brought us Life that we

may see the miracle of Life unfold;

Its mystic meaning yet untold!

I shall not hasten to explore the

mute “Hereafter,” “Heretofore,” but

leave such futile source of strife -

Meet birth and death as part of Life!

‘Tis isle - talk of Heaven or Hell,

but live the day and all is well!

Nature doth not, as yet, reveal

the secrets we would fain unseal,

but Life, that graces field and wood,

is ours,and worketh for our good!

untitled (1954?)

The postman passed us on his way

No word from brother Tom today

But I shall not complain.

Good books have I upon the shelf

Wherewith to edify myself

And Tom will write again.


born 30 March 1874 Edinburgh, Scotland

married (1) 1908 Ellen Boring -- two children

married (2) 1936 Eva Warner -- no children

died 20 October 1957 Canton, Illinois

ANCESTORS: We know six of his eight great-grandparents, but not much beyond that.

COUSINS: Some. Of Aleck’s seven siblings, only Tom and Jim had children.

DESCENDANTS: As of summer 2007, he has five grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and one great-great grandchild.