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Recalling Richard Henson

June 14, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

If all you know about Richard A. Henson is that he donated $1 million for the construction of the New Hagerstown YMCA, then you don't know nearly enough. Henson, who died this week, contributed to Washington County in many ways for decades.

In a long interview with Herald-Mail reporter Kerry Fraley when he was 88, Henson spoke about the journey from his humble beginnings on East Frederick Street, where he lived above his mother's hat shop, to a wealthy philanthropist.

His dream was to be a pilot, and to learn how to fly, he purchased his own plane for $375 in 1931. Soon he went to work at Fairchild Aircraft, where he was paid $5 per flight to be a test pilot. He test-flew more than a dozen different planes, eventually becoming director for Fairchild's F-27 Prop Jet program.

At the same time, Henson ran his own company, Henson Aviation, acting as the fixed-based operator of the Hagerstown Airport, where his company offered fuel, maintenance and repair service, flying lessons and airplane rides.

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In 1962, after trying unsuccessfully to get Allegheny Airlines to improve service to Hagerstown, Henson became one of just a dozen companies in the nation to set up a commuter flight service. It didn't make much cash, Henson told Fraley, but as head of the chamber of commerce's transportation committee, he said he had become convinced that the lack of flights between here and larger cities hurt efforts to bring new business to the Hagerstown area.

In 1980, citing a poor political climate locally, Henson moved the headquarters of his business to Salisbury, then sold the company to Piedmont Aviation, Inc. In addition, he owned the WHAG TV and radio stations in the late 1970s and once operated a cattle ranch in Smithsburg.

In 1990 he set up a charitable foundation, which in addition to the $1 million given to the local YMCA, has donated $2 million to the University Maryland/Eastern Shore and $1 million to the Salisbury YMCA.

And so, in addition to being an aviation pioneer whose test flights and demonstrations helped generations of people support themselves by working at Fairchild, Richard Henson was generous enough to look past his disappointment with area leaders in the 1980s to help build a new YMCA here. His soaring spirit will be greatly missed.

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