WATERLOO — For more than 50 years, Leland “Lee” Henry has worked tirelessly for the improvement of his adopted hometown community.
For that, Henry, of 93 Virginia St., will be awarded the 2019 Henry C. Welles Award, kicking off the annual Celebrate Commemorate Memorial Day weekend observation.
Welles was the Waterloo druggist who came up with the idea of setting aside a day to honor those who died in the Civil War. That led to Waterloo becoming the Birthplace of Memorial Day for its first Memorial Day observance in May 1866. Congress declared Waterloo the Birthplace of Memorial Day in 1966.
The Welles award honors those who “embody the character and commitment of the founder of Memorial Day toward the betterment of our community.”
“For more than fifty years, Lee has worked tirelessly for the improvement of Waterloo,” said Josh Mull, a member of the selection committee. “From his service in the Lions Club and the JayCees to his work on the Town Board and his efforts as a private citizen, Lee’s life of service and commitment is exemplary.”
Born in Brooklyn, Henry came to Waterloo with his family in 1946 and graduated from Waterloo High School in 1947. After a year in college, he enlisted in the Army, serving for four years with the 82nd Airborne Division. While in the service, he married his high school sweetheart, the former Alice O’Connor, who joined him at Fort Bragg, N.C.
After his discharge, the couple returned to Waterloo. “Our roots were here,” Henry said.
Not long after settling here, Henry joined the Waterloo Lions Club and became involved in the service club’s many projects, including creation of a crossing from Oak Street to Oak Island and helping build a playground north of the Community Center. “That’s when I learned to use a jackhammer,” Henry said.
During this time, Henry was employed at Greenwood Foods, moving up from warehouse worker to transportation manager. For three nights a week, he also drove to Syracuse University to study economics and transportation, and he and Alice raised daughters Karen and Valerie and son Leland.
When work took him away from Waterloo, he reluctantly gave up his community activities. When he returned home in 1965, he assisted past Welles Award winners Richard Schreck and John Genung on the Centennial Committee that spearheaded the effort to get Waterloo named as the Birthplace of Memorial Day.
Following his retirement in 1992, Henry returned to public service. He was elected to the Town Board, serving from 1997 to 2001. He helped form a zoning committee and developed a comprehensive plan and the town’s first zoning ordinance in 2000.
He served on the board of the Waterloo Library & Historical Society from 2005 to 2009, helping raise funds and drafting the organization’s first formal budget and instituting health care and retirement plans for employees.
He also is proud of his work as vice-president of Concerned Citizens of Seneca County, a group that worked to stop a proposed clay mine for Seneca Meadows Landfill north of North Road and west of Burgess Road.
“Saving that land is huge. If Waterloo is ever going to expand, that’s the natural direction,” he said.
Alice Henry died in 2014. Lee, now 90, remains active with Concerned Citizens of Seneca County. He enjoys spending time with his children and their spouses, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, all of whom live nearby, and his large orange cat Dilbert.
He works part-time as a delivery person for BonaDent and serves as an usher at St. Mary’s Church, delivers Meals on Wheels and plays golf.
“We are honored to welcome Lee Henry to the group of amazing men and women who are previous Welles Award recipients,” said Jane Shaffer, co-chair of the Celebrate Commemorate Committee.
Henry will be presented the award at a reception from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 24, at the Waterloo Library & Historical Society, 31 E. William St.