Sterling Henry Sr. passed away Tuesday, July 12, 2016.
This guy, Sterling Henry Sr, was … and then words fail me, so I'll leave it at that and all who knew him will complete it in their own special way depending on how he impacted them in whatever relationship their life connected with his. I will attempt to communicate who he was to me and the people I know of who shared the “University of H&W” experience.
My and many others' first “real” social security paying job was at H&W Drug Store. Those of us who were blessed with this experience had the special privilege of a first work experience where we were trained and coached and respected with the expectation that we would succeed, that we could and would become vital parts of the team. It is with much pain that I reflect on all the young people who due to the paucity of businesses owned by people like Sterling and his partner, Mr Watkins have no opportunity for a similar uplifting first work experience. Perhaps we should all find such businesses and support them like the treasures that they really are.
We were never treated like commodities in a surplus labor force, like we were replaceable from the masses of people who needed work. I felt like they were depending on me to “get it right” and Sterling took the time to train me in every aspect of my job, from how to check in inventory to how to “consolidate” the trash, which he personally delivered to the dump in his little pick up truck. I must say, however that Sterling deferred to Mr. Watkins the honor of teaching me how to clean the employee bathroom properly “for our ladies”. Watching a senior pharmacist poke his head around a commode to eliminate any and all specks of crud left a permanent mark on me and, I'm certain, those who preceded and succeeded me in that role... about the dignity of all work in service to others that was done well, a message and perception that by now I've passed on to thousands of young people.
I had met him as “Sterling”, introduced through his sister in law Dianne, who was contemporary to one of my my brothers, Don and I and had become friends with us in the aftermath of hurricane Betsy, because her mother and my great aunt, where we stayed after that storm lived on the same block. When Dianne stayed with Sterling and Elvira she was like honey drawing flies, and Sterling and “Elvie” found themselves entertaining several of the guys in the neighborhood including me and my brother Don who was quite smitten with Dianne (who is no longer with us). Sterling would come in, give us that hard look, grunt something and go about his business, but Dianne made sure we understood the code of conduct, and all in all found ourselves welcomed and were privy to observe their way of life: breadwinner and committed child rearing wife, living within their means so they could afford to have a parent at home for Sterling Jr, Troy and Ruston while starting a business. Daughter Monica would come and bless them for a short while later. I think sometimes we were useful as distractions for the boys. Sterling was a smart ass. Troy always had an angle. Ruston bounced off the walls.
It's at these points of reflection that my eyes well up with a smile as I realize that this had so much to do with how my wife and I focused on raising our children, hands on, and built our business at the same time. There were no other people in our lives who did that. A pharmacist and well educated wife living in a small three bedroom side of an investment double, and him driving that more and more raggedy little pickup truck Elvira always had the nice car.
One day when he came home and I was there, he offered me the job... and that's when he became Mr. Henry to me. Everyone at H&W was Mr, Miss or Mrs. and last name, so once I took the job, There wasn't any more “Sterling” in my life. He was and deserved to be called “Mr. Henry” (never required Dr. Henry).
Mr. Henry stayed in all our business. How were you doing in school? Who was your boyfriend / girl friend? What were your plans? What did you think about this or that. But we never felt that he was judging us, but we all knew he was constantly accessing us. And when you said or did something that raised a red flag in his mind about your future, you would get one of those lessons that always began with “Now” and your name and his serious face with that raised eyebrow, the same look you got when you did something on the job that needed correcting.
That “who was your girlfriend question” tripled my relationship link with Mr. Henry once I said my girl's name was Anne Ray. Oh, he really got personal. From that point on I had to deal with “Uncle Nip”. “You're courting 'Bootsie' and Barbara Ray's daughter?"
Well it turns out that 'Bootsie' Ray was Ned Ray Jr, my wife of 45 years father who just happened to be his friend and fellow club member whom he had engaged to deliver prescriptions to his union clients. They hung out together, went to balls and parties with their wives together. To Ned's daughters, Mr. Henry was “Uncle Nip” as I soon discovered he was to most young people in his personal life. So, my SWOT (Google it) assessments became more pointed and purposed from that point on... and I started to get a ride home via going to the dump more often with more of those after hours, “Now, Lloyd” lessons about life, and responsible manhood... “Now, Lloyd a nice girl like that who's daddy owns a house and takes her nice places ain't going to happy with some broke Negro...” Later my then girlfriend, now wife Anne would work there, and learn the same lessons before we married after I entered the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
One of the key things both my wife and I learned in this overlapping relationship with Uncle Nip and Elvira was how two strong willed people could be happy and coexist if they had a plan and agreed on the basics, and with them it was kind of simple: what the the children need comes first and respect for one another and everyone else is how we live. So as a result of observing Sterling, I have also found happiness with very beautiful but very sassy lady in my life who also agreed to focus on raising children until that job was done... and then it was time to party!
But the central humanity of Sterling, Mr Henry, Uncle Nip really surfaced to me the one time that he ever spoke harshly to and was genuinely angry at me. I had moved up to weekend cashier and a smelly, dirty neighborhood panhandler and wino walked into the store and was poking around the soda machine and ice cream case and I called out to him, “What do you want in here?” Mr. Henry called to me. “Mr. Dennis (no “Now” this time) Close your drawer and come here... right now.” He lit into me from a place and in a way I had never experienced before or have experienced since from Sterling /Mr. Henry / Uncle Nip, “Don't you ever talk to any of our customers like that again.” (loud enough for the gentleman I had offended to hear) “Everyone who comes into this store is our customer, if not today, maybe tomorrow and the only name you should ever call a customer is 'Sir' or 'Mam'. Are we clear Mr. Dennis?”
He then left from behind the counter walked over to the gentleman and asked if there was something he could help him with. It was only then that I saw the few coins in his hand as he explained (with his dignity intact) that he was trying to decide whether to get a soda or an ice cream sandwich. With a straight face, Mr Henry told the man that we had not put the signs up yet but we had a special that day on ice cream sandwiches which meant he could afford both. When the man left I was told to go in the back and make a one day only special sign for ice cream sandwiches... in case the gentleman came back. I had just gotten chewed out, but that was one of the proudest days of my life because I knew how blessed I was to have Sterling, Mr Henry, Uncle Nip and the University of H&W experience in my life and that I would never be confused about how to treat anyone ever again. I shudder to even consider where I and so many others would be without Sterling / Mr Henry / Uncle Nip.
There is much more to this man, things of which I have no knowledge or experience, but I am certain in the knowledge that the life I and many others live and the service we endeavor to give would not be what they are had he not been who he was.