The Henry C. Welles award honors those individuals who “embody the character and commitment of the founder of Memorial Day toward the betterment of our community.”
For his efforts to preserve and improve the village of Waterloo, this year’s Welles award honors Leland “Lee” Henry of 93 Virginia Street.
“For more than 50 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 Jay Cees, to his work on the Town Board and his efforts as a private citizen, Lee’s life of service and commitment is exemplary.”
Lee Henry will be presented his award at a reception from 5:30 to 6:30 pm on Friday, May 24, at the Waterloo Library and Historical Society, East Williams Street, the kickoff for Celebrate Commemorate weekend.
Henry came to Waterloo with his family from Brooklyn in 1946, in the middle of his junior year in high school, and although his work forced him to move frequently throughout his adult life, Waterloo was always the place he called home.
Lee graduated from Waterloo High School in 1947, and after a year in college enlisted in the ARMY, serving 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 Ft Bragg, N C .It was not surprising that the young couple returned to Waterloo following his discharge. “Our roots were here,” he explained.
Not long after settling into his new home, Henry joined the Waterloo Lions Club and became involved in the group’s many projects. The Lions created the first crossing to Oak Island by installing a culvert and path from Oak Street. They then built a playground in the swampy area north of what is now the Community Center, between Oak & Seneca St “We literally drained the swamp before it became a popular phrase,” Henry said with a laugh. Mike Weaver, local tile drainage expert, provided help with drainage and surveying, he said.But the group was stymied when it came to installing a fence around the field. The project’s cost was more than the group could fund. Then they heard that the former Andes Furnace Co on Route 5&20 in Geneva was closing and would donate its cyclone fence to the Lions if they removed it that weekend. Verne Sessler Sr. .came to the rescue providing trucks and equipment and on a “rainy, cold weekend” in November the Lions turned out to take on the challenge of rolling up several hundred feet of fence, pulling up posts and removing the concrete footings. “That’s when I learned to use a jackhammer,” Henry joked. The playground was completed over several years, fence erected, painted, equipped, supervised and became a Village operation. Henry remained a Lion for many years, serving at least one term as President.
During this time, he was employed at Greenwood Foods, moving up from warehouseman to transportation manager. For three years he also drove three nights a week to Syracuse University to study economics and transportation, a tough commute in those days with no Thruway. And he and Alice raised their three children, daughters Karen and Valerie and son Leland. When work took him away from Waterloo, Henry reluctantly gave up his community activities. But he returned home in 1965-66 in time to assist fellow Welles Award recipients Richard Schreck and John Genung on the Centennial Committee that succeed in Waterloo being named the official Birthplace of Memorial Day.
It was a proud day in 1978 when Lee successfully passed the five, four-hour exams to earn his professional certification from the American Society of Traffic and Transportation. Following his retirement in 1992, Henry returned to public service. He served on the Town Board from 1997-2001, helping form a zoning committee and develop a comprehensive plan and the Town’s first zoning ordinance, with a bevy of other ordinances to protect to Town, in 2000.
Henry served on the board of the 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 is proudest of his work as vice president of Concerned Citizens of Seneca County in helping to shutter mining on a 200-acre field East of Burgess Road. “Saving that land is huge. If Waterloo is ever going to expand, that’s the natural direction,” he explained.
Alice Henry died in 2014, and these days Lee, age 90, enjoys spending time with his children and their spouses, nine grandchildren and six great grandchildren who all live nearby, and his large orange cat “Dilbert”. He works part time as a delivery person for BonaDent, serves as an usher at St. Francis-St. Clare church, delivers Meals on Wheels and is working on his golf game.
“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 Celebrate Commemorate.