After a lifetime dedicated to improving the lives of small children, licensed clinical social worker Ron Henke, 78, died June 28 in his Diamond Springs home.
A United States Navy veteran who served during the Korean War, Henke was the first Child Protective Services worker in El Dorado County. He spearheaded several programs, including Wee CARE and the Early Childhood Counseling Center (EC3) and the Infant Parent Center to benefit young children. He won the Mountain Democrat’s Spirit of El Dorado award in 1993, among numerous other accolades.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisc., Jan. 9, 1933, Henke is survived by his wife of 54 years, Doris Henke of Diamond Springs; his sons, Stephen and Phillip Henke; his daughter, Annette Henke of Napa; and his grandchildren, Alec and Gianna Henke.
While serving in the Navy from 1951-54, Ron did not see active combat, but he saw how babies and children suffered around the world. This ignited his goal to help improve the lot of society’s smallest, powerless and most defenseless members.
“After seeing so many children begging for food and love, Ron decided to spend his life serving ‘the least of these,’ the little children,” said Doris.
Ron, who suffered from bone marrow cancer, faced death with equanimity, and inspired others up to the very end. Doris added that Ron did not preach during his career with children, but that he “shone a light by his example.” In the days and weeks before Ron’s death, he was surrounded by family, friends and colleagues, all of whom say that Ron truly “walked in the light.”
His torch will be carried on by his wife, children, grandchildren, child welfare advocates and the families he served throughout his career. When Ron retired in 1990, he continued to volunteer his time, money, and experience to the betterment of children’s lives.
“Ron dedicated the last years of his professional career to the Infant Parent Center where his legacy will continue. Ron was a precious human being, a word he often used with the families he served,” said Allison Garday of the IPC in Placerville. “He was a brilliant supervisor and clinician, a gift he shared freely with others … I will miss his smile, his great sense of humor and humble spirit.”
Navy becomes beacon
For Ron, becoming a photographer in the Navy was a highlight of his life — one that he almost missed.
After graduating from high school, Ron, like most of his peers, thought he would work in a factory. He decided to pursue an apprenticeship in tool-and-die making.
Ron passed the aptitude test at the Wisconsin Employment Department, but the counselor suggested that Ron go to college. “You won’t be happy as a tool-and-die maker,” the counselor advised with rare insight.
Believing himself unprepared financially and educationally for college, Ron left the employment office dejected, not knowing what he was going to do.
“I walked down Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee’s main street, where I saw a U.S. Navy recruiting sign on the sidewalk. On the spur of the moment, I decided to go in and talk to the recruiting officer. He was very persuasive. I signed up right then and there,” Ron prefaced in his Navy photograph album.
Ron became a part of the VJ-62 Photo Squadron, assigned to reconnaissance and mapping. His passion for photography stayed with him all his life, as well as did his penchant for education and learning. Ron was thankful for that counselor’s advice.
Before Ron became debilitated, he worked on his photo albums depicting the scenes of a lifetime. An avid photographer, who had his own dark room, Ron’s excellent photos grace the walls of the Henkes’ modest and comfortable home. Numerous photo albums are lovingly annotated for posterity. Nestled within spectacular scenery, panoramic views and Doris’ wonderful gardens, the Henkes’ beautiful surroundings are simple and home-like.
“Ron was never concerned with materialism,” Doris said. “As long as we had food and shelter, we were grateful.”
A pioneer’s lamp
“As partial payback for a Child Welfare Scholarship, I had to work in a rural county,” wrote Ron in a memoir about his career. “That brought us to El Dorado County.” Ron and Doris came to the area in 1961.
He graduated from David Lipscomb College, a Bible college in Nashville, Tenn., in 1959. During this time, Ron was a minister in rural Tennessee, which he enjoyed, but with the scholarship, he and Doris moved to Los Angeles, where Ron earned his masters in Social Work from the University of Southern California in 1961.
Ron was hired as the first and only child welfare worker in El Dorado County. When he had fulfilled his two year commitment, he went to work in San Mateo County.
“I thought I needed more training and could learn more, but it didn’t work out that way,” Ron recalled. “I was overworked as a CPS worker in San Mateo.”
The Henkes liked El Dorado County. With three children by now, they missed the foothills, the beauty and the community they felt would be a nice place to raise children. When a position as an AFDC supervisor became available, the Henkes moved back. Then a position in CPS opened up, where Ron worked for some six years before taking a job at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center in their Department of Psychiatry, Child Psychiatry Division.
“I learned a lot there, but I got tired of commuting, and that’s when I obtained a job with New Morning in Placerville,” Ron explained.
New Morning dawns
At that time, New Morning was a street drug abuse program where the staff worked out of a drop-in center and went to where teenagers gathered to offer support, referrals and “counseling,” according to Ron. By 1975, New Morning was shifting its emphasis from work primarily with teens to working with families, so Ron was instrumental in that transition.
Soon Ron was hired by El Dorado Community Mental Health as the children’s coordinator.
“I was met with a lot of resistance from the staff, who mainly wanted to work only with adults,” Ron wrote. But knowing that childhood traumas can occur in the womb, in babyhood and early childhood, Ron persisted. He felt that love and compassion early on and family counseling could prevent abuse and help children to overcome the unseen wounds that can fester into addictions and mental illness.
Ron retired in 1990 to dedicate himself to a nonprofit Infant Mental Health Program called Wee CARE Parent Infant Center. Staffed with volunteers, including Doris, and backed up by Ron and Stephani Walton, RN, the team visited everyone who delivered at Marshall Hospital. They assessed risk factors to identify those needing more support, information and referrals. Wee CARE soon flourished under the wing of Pride and Joy, an established non-profit, which like WeeCARE is now part of Family Connections.
Ron then established EC3, a professional counseling service for children birth to 6 years old, where he remained as a consultant for many years. EC3 is now part of New Morning Youth and Family Services. He also helped to start the Infant Parent Center, which is an independent non profit.
When Ron’s illness entered its final stages, Doris, who has volunteered with Snowline Hospice for 17 years, found herself on the receiving end of their services.
“They are so wonderful,” she said. “There is a stigma attached to hospice care, as it does mean that the end is near. Don’t hesitate to call for hospice care; it makes the transition so much easier for the caretaker, the family and the patient. I am so thankful for their help.”
Since Ron remained lucid and positive to the end, he and his family had a wonderful Father’s Day celebration, where his granddaughter played the violin for him.
“My father’s true essence lives on in all those he touched,” Annette said.
“Ron … accomplished so much in his life, and there are so many people who are carrying on his work,” said Doris. “Our children also work with children.”
A memorial service at Federated Church will be held on July 23 at 10 a.m., where the Rev. Sandy Pearce will officiate. In memory of Ron’s life, the family asks that gifts be made to the Infant Parent Center c/o Marshall Foundation, PO Box 1996, Placerville 95667.