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Thursday, May 24, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Gordon McHenry, Boeing exec

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Whenever Gordon McHenry started telling a story, he would find a scrap of paper, even a paper napkin, and finish his point with a diagram or drawing.

An electrical engineer, Mr. McHenry wasn't one to waste words. He was so quiet, in fact, that the young woman who would become his wife of 45-plus years almost didn't notice him in the din generated by a group of mutual friends back in the mid-1940s.

But then Mildred McHenry's sister died. And when the other friends cleared away, she saw this quiet, intelligent, caring man clearly for the first time. "Gordon was there when everybody left," Mrs. McHenry recalled. "He was there for me."

That's the way he was, then and always - a strong, calm presence who supported his family with love and kindness.

"He's been my friend, my sweetheart, my love for 45 years," Mrs. McHenry said.

Mr. McHenry died Saturday at the age of 80 after a three-month battle with cancer.

Mr. McHenry, the first black engineer promoted into management at Boeing as well as the first person in his family to graduate from college, instilled in his children respect for education and the belief that they could succeed in life, said his son, Eric McHenry of Santa Rosa, Calif.

Born in Tyler, Texas, Mr. McHenry moved with his family to Spokane, where he grew up. After he graduated from Gonzaga University, he was hired by Boeing, where he worked on military programs for the next 40 years until his retirement in 1984.

As one of the first two black engineers hired by Boeing, Mr. McHenry occasionally faced racism, said his elder son, Gordon McHenry Jr. But he coped quietly, seeing it as a reflection of society and as a personal challenge that he would eventually win because "his accomplishments would speak for themselves."

That's just what happened, said his wife. "He was good in what he did, and they recognized it. He was very quiet, and very, very smart. And everybody knew it there. He didn't talk unless he had something to say."

At home, that "something" often involved encouraging his sons.

"He was an incredibly positive, reassuring person," said Gordon McHenry Jr., an executive at Boeing. "He was a leader and a supporter all in one. He let you find your own way, but would gently guide you with a few questions to make you sure you understood the whole thing. And then encourage you."

When Eric McHenry failed his first college engineering test at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he was ready to throw in the towel. But his dad encouraged him, telling him he had the family's support. Eric McHenry is now the highest-ranking African American at a Silicon Valley high-tech firm.

While he was working his way up at Boeing, Mr. McHenry, an avid outdoorsman, also introduced his family to camping. His oldest son was only three months old when the family slept in a tent at Deception Pass, Mrs. McHenry remembered.

From there, it was to the Cascades, the Oregon coast, Kalaloch on the Washington coast, Eastern Washington. And when he retired 1984, he and Mrs. McHenry widened their horizons, visiting Europe and South America.

And through it all, he was nurturing his love of photography. Using his home darkroom, he developed his own black-and-white photographs, hanging favorites all over their home.

Mr. McHenry was always an active man, said his family. He bicycled until illness slowed him, and tended a beloved P-Patch garden where he raised red onions, cucumbers, radishes and carrots. Typically optimistic, he signed up this spring for a plot, though he knew he was sick. In addition to his wife and two sons, Mr. McHenry is survived by his daughters-in-law, Dorina Calderon-McHenry and LaVerne Rodrigues-McHenry; his grandchildren, Mariesa, David, Alexander, Lauren and Austin; two sisters, Mary Carson of Richmond, Calif., and Ruth Hebert of San Francisco; sister-in-law Nora Adams; and brother-in-law Wendell Long of Dallas.

Memorial services will be today at 11 a.m. at Mount Zion Baptist Church, 1934 19th Ave. in Seattle. Interment will follow at Sunset Hills Memorial Park, 1575 145th Place S.E. in Bellevue.

In lieu of flowers, remembrances may be made to Alpha Omicron Boule Education Program, c/o Graham & Dunn, 1420 Fifth Ave., 33rd floor, Seattle 98101-2390. The program is a service fraternity that provides mentoring and college scholarships to students of color.

Carol M. Ostrom can be reached at 206 464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com.

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