Robert Henry on servant leadership, arts, law and ‘Of Gardening’

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Published: 08-Jul-2010

Reflecting on his decision to return to higher education, leaving behind a life-tenured post on the federal bench, Oklahoma City University President Robert Henry told The Oklahoman he considered his new work at the private college an extension of his career in public service, which began when he was elected to the Legislature as a young man.
Asked to elaborate on the “service” theme, Henry told CapitolBeatOK, “The United Methodists are a very interesting group. Their history follows the history of the development of American ideas and ideals. John Wesley even came here to see America during our infancy as a nation. Their governance as a denomination is greatly influenced by the American experience. The whole Biblical concept of servant leadership, that he who would be the first must be the servant of all, is central to the Methodist belief system.”
The servant leadership ideal is drawn from multiple sources in the Western tradition, including the Gospel of Matthew (20:25-28, King James Version), where Jesus said to his disciples, “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and that they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever shall be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, to give his life a ransom for many.”
Henry continued that the Methodists work from “a very communitarian concept. It impresses me deeply now to be involved with a place like this. In OCU’s charter, promulgated in 1904 – three years before statehood – men like Anton Classen made it clear that this would be a place that would welcome people of all faiths – not just all denominations but all faiths — to come and study and learn. That has impressed me.
“The Interfaith community spirit is what OCU represents, it is who and what we are. With time we have become a home for much of the artistic spirit of Oklahoma City. Every great city requires a great university. Oklahoma City is now a great city. We are, more and more, the great university of this great city.”
Friends of Robert Henry frequently characterize him as a “Renaissance Man” because of the diversity and depth of his many interests. Asked to describe his love of great music, Henry explained, “I asked my mother some years ago why she had taken care to give me piano lessons. She replied, ‘Because you wanted them so badly.’
“I played the piano. I grew up in First Baptist Church of Shawnee. It was a singing church. We had a grand old pipe organ. Every Christmas the church performed either Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ or ‘Ahmal and the Night Visitors,’ it was one or the other in alternating years. I’ll tell you I still cry when I watch the ‘night visitors.’
“I developed a passion for music. I love all music but I’m most drawn to classical and religious music, and to Broadway show music, which of course is a variation on classical music. My favorite composer is Frederic Chopin, whose music speaks to me in everything he does.
“Concerning music, I love it and of course it fascinates me. Music truly is the universal language. Pythagoras figured out the octave in his mystical musings. There is something mystical and yet fundamental and universal about music.”
President Henry told this writer he planned to spend a year being acclimated to his administrative duties, then would return to some classroom teaching. He said, “I have taught government and legal writing here previously, and those have some appeal to me. But I’m drawn to subjects like arts and values, which I know would be a good class. I’m taken with ideas that are really pretty fundamental, like DeBussey’s music ‘sounds’ like Monet’s paintings look! Art, you know, reflects the science of its time.”
He continued, “I’d like to teach American government also. I’d like to explore Jacques Barzun’s book, “From Dawn to Decadence.” His thesis is that we work in 500 year eras or cycles. Martin Luther had the effect of electrifying and propelling forward the Western world for 500 years, but now we are in a time of fragmented jurisprudence, trying to find our way forward.” He then added, “I would also like to teach about ‘Ancient Texts.’”
Continuing with the teaching theme, Henry was asked to share a favorite story from his eclectic experiences in classroom instruction. He responded, “I was teaching law and literature at Oxford, and we spent time on ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ It is a great play, and a great ‘law play.’ We used a teaching technique where the students, based solely on the evidence in the play, had to decide whether to give Shylock a rehearing. We had two teams of two appellate ‘lawyers’ each.
“They gave their arguments for a rehearing. The students in the class voted, and Shylock won. It was amazing, and a testament to William Shakespeare. He probably didn’t know a single Jew, and there have been many allegations that the character was an anti-Semitic portrayal.
“Yet Shakespeare is so multi-layered, so detailed and so humane in his presentation that from the evidence in his own story – an outcome opposite the one he wrote – was possible. It showed the mastery of Shakespeare in presenting enough information to reach that contrary result.
“Laurence Olivier, the great Shakespearian actor of stage and screen, always wanted to play Shylock, who had a story to tell, and it still is a story to tell. The character is not uni-dimensional. Alan Bloom, a great Jewish scholar, loved the play and loved the character.”
So, is there anything most people don’t know about Robert Henry that he doesn’t mind them learning from a news article? He replied, “Most people don’t know I’m shy. It is true. A big part of me likes to get a really good book, get in a corner and stay there for a long time. There’s a part of me that likes to spend a day just working in the garden, and even talking to the plants.”
Concerning gardens, he continued, “I remember a wonderful story about St. Francis of Assisi. He was working in his garden, when a novitiate monk came to him and asked, ‘What would you do if you knew the Lord Jesus was soon to return?’ St. Francis replied, ‘First, I’d finish hoeing my garden.’
“A story like this speaks to me. It says, first, that having a garden is important work. Second, it says that what he was doing at that moment he needed to be doing. Third, it touches on the dignity and importance of labor, honest work.”
Henry concluded our time together this way: “Francis Bacon wrote in his essay, ‘Of Gardening,’ that ‘The Lord Himself first planted a garden.’ So I want to follow that example.”