WOSTER: Former justice, senator Frank Henderson was larger than lifeI saw the news of his passing on a blog. It was a quiet and unremarkable way to learn of the death of a loud and memorable human being.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
Just before the old year ended, former South Dakota Supreme Court Justice Frank Henderson died. He was 84.
I saw the news of his passing on a blog. It was a quiet and unremarkable way to learn of the death of a loud and memorable human being. Henderson did few things in a small way, whether serving during the Korean War, writing a stinging dissent in a Supreme Court decision or attempting to abolish the state Game, Fish and Parks Department as a member of the South Dakota Senate.
When I read of his passing, my first thought was of the way the doorway darkened in the old Associated Press bureau when the state senator from Hill City stopped to visit one afternoon during my first year as a legislative reporter.
Seriously, his broad frame blocked out the sunlight that normally made its way into the bureau through the east window in the fourth-floor hallway. I looked up to see a giant of a man with dark, piercing eyes and ham-sized hands. He wore a salt-and-pepper suit, and when he told me he was there to see Jim Wilson, my boss with the wire service, I barely had the courage to say Jim was traveling out of town on business.
“Then you must be the new kid he told me about,” Henderson said. He said it so certainly that I wouldn’t have denied it even if it hadn’t been so. As it was, I introduced myself and let my hand be smothered in his strong grip.
Henderson was good copy, whether in the Legislature or on the high-court bench. I need to be careful about saying that. I said it a while back about another strong personality I had covered during my news career, and I got a stinging email saying I was calling the person a show-boat. Well, there was a bit of that about Henderson, but that isn’t what I mean. I just mean he did things that were attention-getting.
He wasn’t called “Rutang the Mustang” for nothing, after all. He was more than a bit of a maverick during his legislative years, a lawmaker with a flair for public speaking, a strong voice to carry his message and no concern whether he was stepping on the toes of party bosses, legislative leaders or the occupants of the governor’s office a floor down from the legislative chambers.
Neither the administration nor the Senate leaders particularly wanted Henderson to introduce a bill abolishing Game, Fish & Parks, for example. He did it, anyway, and he moved it a ways along the legislative process.
When then-Gov. Frank Farrar finished his State of the State message on opening day of the 1970 session, Henderson’s reaction was that it all sounded like “a shotgun approach to paradise.”
Late in that 1970 session, a bill of Henderson’s had passed the Senate but disappeared in the House. In those days, legislative leaders sometimes took a bill they didn’t like and squirreled it away in a desk drawer or the pocket of a suit coat. The so-called pocket veto was not uncommon, but when it happened to one of Henderson’s pet pieces of legislation, he came from the Senate to the House to set things straight.
The House was in an evening session at that time, trying to finish its calendar, when the big swinging doors at the back of the chamber flew open so forcefully I thought the ornate glass would shatter. Henderson strode up the center aisle to the speaker’s podium and demanded to know where his bill had gone.
The speaker managed a quick recess, made a trip back to his office and returned with the Henderson bill. The legislation was placed on the calendar, debated and killed. Henderson didn’t like the outcome, but he accepted it. He wouldn’t accept not giving the House a chance to vote on the bill.
He ran for governor and lost to Farrar in the 1970 Republican primary. Farrar lost re-election to Democrat Dick Kneip.
Henderson went back to Hill City, but eventually won a seat on the Supreme Court. I am being respectful when I say, he was an incredible character.