Saturday, July 18, 2015

Memories of My Brother, Carl R. Henn (1962-2010)

Climbing My Family Tree: Carl Henn
Carl Raman Henn
Picture courtesy of his wife and daughters
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This is the post I didn’t put up last week after Aunt Barbara died.

My brother Carl’s birthday was July 6, 1962. He died July 27, 2010.  While this might still be too soon, I don’t want to put it up near the end of the month because I want this to be about his life, not his death. 

On his birthday, I was going through my memory box and came across several pages I had written five years ago titled “Memories of Carl.” I can’t remember why I wrote them down. I wonder if I was afraid of forgetting him. I should’ve known that was not possible. I have been considering writing a blog post on my memories of Carl this month for awhile, and had, last month, asked his wife and daughters of that would bother them (in which case I would not do it). They said to go ahead and since then I have been thinking about what to write. Upon finding these pages, I’ve decided to share the memories I wrote down that day, with minimal editing (mostly for clarity).

As always, per my agreement with my family upon starting this blog, I’ve not named living persons without specific permission unless they are or were then public figures. (Although, as his death and, therefore, life, was covered in the Washington Post, I’m not sure how much more public my little blog could be.)

Most of the following are my memories. Some of them may be my memories of other people’s told-stories.  They are likely not in chronological order.

Climbing My Family Tree: Carl and that goofy hat
Carl and that goofy hat; he wore it everywhere outdoors.
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Carl was my middle younger brother, or I am his older, and only, sister. He was a very special person, and I love him very much.

I can see him being held up in my dad’s arms to color pictures on the wallpaper, as they allowed us to do before they took it down in order to re-wallpaper the living room.

I can see him as a young boy at our camp covered in dirt, doggedly looking for arrowheads. Or as an even younger boy, covered with even more dirt, pulling kittens in a little wagon. I see him, in our garage, in Union City, Ohio, daring friends to eat dog food (he ate it!). I see him practicing guitar, or trombone in the sunlight streaming into the living room. I see him lying long across the couch, reading, book propped on his chest – odds are, rest of us, my other brothers and I were on other chairs or couches, or the floor, also reading.

Climbing My Family Tree: Carl and kittens
Carl and kittens
family photo
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Climbing My Family Tree: Carl as a baby
Carl as a baby
family photo
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He was a round baby. In pictures of us as young children, his older brother was lanky and angled, and Carl was round. Which is odd, because he grew up to be tall, skinny, lanky and angled.

He and his older brother (I'm oldest - they're all younger to me which makes for awkward phrasing) were inseparable in childhood, sharing a room, playing together in the fields and woods, playing the same instrument in school, working at the same high school job (CIC club), blaring Beatles music from the stereo (other bands too, of course, but I mostly remember the later Beatles albums for some reason).

Carl was the youngest child in the family for three years, and he did not give up that spot gracefully when the time came. Fortunately, he outgrew that and he and our youngest brother became the closest of friends in adulthood, and especially after they were both dads and they were both very good dads. I remember both of them working together on Christmas Eve to put together toys for the kids late into the night.

We were all bookworms too. On any given day, particularly in the winter, you could walk into our house and see all four of us, well, six - my parents, too - curled in comfy chairs about the fireplace with a book. All together in our own worlds.

Carl was a high school football player – the skinniest defensive end known to history. He was on the football team at Mississinawa Valley junior high in Union City (Ohio side)  and at Port Clinton high school up on Lake Erie (we moved). I’m not sure that there was a single Friday that he actually came up to the weight he was listed at in the game programs on game day. Most of the time he wasn’t first string, but he loved the game and he tried hard. In his senior year he was also on the tennis team, along with his buddies – I don’t think he was too serious about that, they laughed about it a lot. He also played trombone in the orchestra. He inspired the only Orchestra Lift-a-thon fundraiser that I have ever heard of – perhaps he suggested it because that’s how the football team often raised money. The orchestra members were uniformly smaller and far skinnier than the football team, but the Lift-a-thon attracted attention and it made money!

Climbing My Family Tree: Carl in our Port Clinton, OH back yard
Carl in our Port Clinton, OH backyard
family photo
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I remember being asked by Carl and his buddy, John, to go with them to a drive-in movie. They really wanted to see the movie, but they didn’t want to be seen as two guys in a car together at the drive-in (Ohio, 1970's). They must’ve really wanted to see the movie, and Carl must have really been persuasive, as it was a scary movie, and I didn’t, and don’t, like scary movies, but I went.

Carl was in an awful high school rock band (“Dead-End Road”) with his friends. He and his friends wrote original songs for it, with the strangest names (“Armadillo Armageddon,” “Bubonic Dancers,” etc.) He was so intent about it. And so upset when they played in a contest in a local factory bar and were booed off the stage. [Edit: my memory as an older teenage sister is that the band was awful; but, in retrospect, while the music he wrote was odd, it wasn’t 'awful'. And the band may not have been awful in actuality.]

Climbing My Family Tree: The Dead End Road (Carl with guitar) - 1970's
The Dead End Road (Carl Henn with guitar) - 1970s.
This picture was their dreamed of "album cover" shot.
Photo courtesy of John Marek (in white shirt, by the sign)
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Carl wasn’t necessarily the person to have around in an emergency if there was blood. He was extremely trustworthy and resourceful, but he fainted at the sight of blood -- repeatedly. He bravely stayed “with it” (his term) once to take care of our youngest brother when he came home with his face covered in blood after falling off his bike. And he stayed “with it” – largely – for the birth of his babies, even though, or maybe because, the doctor dedicated a nurse just for him after hearing of that tendency! Despite his problems with seeing blood, he prided himself on giving blood every chance he could and saved all the little reward stickers and pins he received for giving gallons. He just refused to look at it as it was coming out.

He wrote songs all his life and played the acoustic guitar. Sung to his wife and daughters. He had a good tenor voice. He made a CD of his songs for mom and for his wife. His wife made me a copy, after. I used to tease him, asking him why he never made a happy song. He explained to me that his voice really wasn’t suited for happy songs and that he sang the best singing sad songs, so he wrote sad songs. So I tell myself that’s why I listen to the CD with tears rolling down my face.

Climbing My Family Tree: Carl playing circa 2002
Carl playing circa 2002
family photo
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I remember, he used to pick out the best books for me for Christmas. Before he was married, he used to give me the most unique gifts. Cricket cages one year. But mostly, his gifts to me had a running theme – “keep Jo warm,” lol. He gave me pocket warmers, mittens, flannel sheets, battery-powered heated socks, microwavable slippers, etc.

After college he moved to the Washington DC area for grad school, and initially worked for the Department of Navy. I can’t remember whether he met his wife while he was still working for the Navy, or if it was after he worked with the National Institutes of Health. I remember him talking about having met someone he quite liked. And he called to talk about menu choices before the first meal he cooked for her. I can’t remember what he settled on – I think I know, but I’m not sure.

She was the love of his life. They married within a year of meeting. I remember the wedding. He was so very happy! He loved her throughout his life. They had one of the happiest marriages I’ve ever known. She accepted all his quirks – and he had them – and loved and supported him through all. She is a wonderful woman. I’ve always been so glad they found each other.

I remember going with him after dark as he walked the dogs for miles throughout his neighborhood, later after we were both adults with our own lives; and we talked about life, his girls, his passions (fighting roads, peak oil, community gardens, and consumer waste), my passions then (civil rights, prisoners’ rights, books), and politics. He would stop and look at what others had thrown out to see if he wanted to bring it home. It was disconcerting, but it was Carl. Sometimes he’d have such an air of happy triumph at his finds.

He was funny. I can picture him wearing gift bags on his head, and re-gifting that rubber chicken every year, and that Roy Orbison album, and his annual Christmas letter was anticipated by all! (I wish I’d saved them.) As an adult, he had a kind, dry sense of humor that helped him in speaking his truths to other people.

Climbing My Family Tree: Goofy Carl
Carl being goofy
photo courtesy of his wife and daughters
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I also see him standing with a glass of red wine in his kitchen. We would each have a glass and talk for hours after the rest of his family had gone to bed, nearly every time I visited.

I can remember Carl playing with his girls, reading to them, encouraging them – fruitlessly – not to watch so much TV. He loved his girls so much. He was so very happy to be a Dad of daughters. He was so proud of them, happy with them. And they are just wonderful young women!

He was so proud of his ability to start fires with one match. I remember he stockpiled like crazy for Y2K wanting to be prepared to take care of his wife and girls if life as we knew it ended. (They ate that stock-piled rice for years after.) Carl took care of his family, loved them intensely, and cared about them deeply. And he showed it. The family he grew up in was also important to him. And he brought his family home for Christmas every other year and talked to Mom and Dad weekly. He and I spoke on the phone about twice a month, for hours at a time.

He lived what he believed always, hanging the laundry in the back yard to dry because dryers use too much energy, and using a real plate and cloth napkin (no waste) even when his wife and kids used paper towels instead of napkins for the convenience. He biked to work nearly every day for 20 years in the Rockville MD traffic to the National Institutes of Health, where he worked in procurements – I was always afraid that he  would be hit by a car. He didn’t like driving a car – the world’s oil reserves being limited (peak oil) – and airplanes were an anathema, although he did fly when necessary to travel overseas … after buying carbon offsets. (He only came to see me at my home once, even though I tried to tell him that the same train he took to take his daughters to a Broadway show in New York City came here too!  I later found out that his daughters were allergic to cats, and I always had cats. (I would drive to see him at least yearly, and saw him at Christmas on the years their family came, until I came to a serious relationship of my own that required its own travel, which cut into my trips to see my brothers – we are all several states apart from one another).

Carl was big into recycling, every letter I ever received from him was on the back of something else. He and his wife got solar panels for the roof of their house, as a wedding anniversary gift to each other, well before this was popular. He saved food scraps and composted them, using them on his garden. Carl had a great smile. I can see him in his garden – the small overgrown garden he was so proud of – wearing that silly hat of his and smiling and laughing as he pointed out his tomatoes or something. He shared the produce in his garden with the whole neighborhood.

Climbing My Family Tree: Screenshot of one of Carl's Letters to the Editor on Peak Oil, The Atlantic Monthly October 2006
Screenshot of one of Carl's Letters to the Editor on Peak Oil,
The Atlantic Monthly, October 2006
(If I knew how to edit I'd've gotten the ad out of there.)
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He researched and wrote letters to the editor on and spoke on “peak oil” – the concept that we’ve used half or more than half, the oil that exists in the earth and we must learn to conserve and switch to other energy sources to protect the earth and maintain a decent lifestyle for ourselves and our children. I remember when he committed to getting a letter to the editor published somewhere each week of one year. And he did it! His letters to the editor were published in the Washington Post, Time Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Atlantic Monthly, Christian Science Monitor, Washington Times, Baltimore Sun, the National Institutes of Health Record, and the Rockville Gazette, among others. He also wrote an article titled How to Write a Letter to the Editor, originally for a green activist website [which was re-posted on an economic development blog by his old high school friend, John Marek, a few months before Carl died. You can see it HERE].

Carl related to every political and life issue through “peak oil” (believe me, EVERY issue) and was very active as a green activist in his community. He cared deeply for his community, served as his neighborhood civic association president, spoke frequently in front of the City Council, promoting community gardens (he was the instigating force in starting three of them) and improved bike/pedestrian paths, and advocating for solutions to city problems that encouraged recycling, and would have lowered the cities dependence on oil and gas. He even ran for City Council (I’m afraid that he spoke a little too much about “peak oil” and his proposed non-car related solutions in a suburban/urban city not ready to hear about that at the time to win).  [Edit: I wonder what he’d think if he knew that by being active in his community he was following in his maternal grandfather’s and his paternal great and great-great grandfathers’ footsteps?]

Climbing My Family Tree: Carl R Henn
Photo courtesy of his wife and daughters
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Carl took care of his neighborhood too, shoveling out older and infirm neighbors for up to several blocks away from his house, every time it snowed. He had a very expansive view of the term “neighbors”.

Going along with his green ideals, Carl thought Americans wasted too much. He was always bringing back stuff from other people’s trash – sometimes whether he needed it or not – both as a kid and as an adult (his wife, realizing that he wasn’t likely to stop, tried to restrain him to just the things he needed – not always successfully). For him, it was almost a sacrilege that people would throw out things that still worked for could be made to work with just a little effort.

He cut his own hair, wore suits he got at garage sales or as gifts. He was very into recycling – everything possible. He was frugal, but he wasn’t cheap; if his girls wanted something, he and his wife usually found a way to make it happen.

He used to email me regularly about his projects, especially if someone objected on some sort of proposed legal ground, and we'd discuss possible responses and solutions. Everything he did was in an effort to make the world a better place for people, with a long-term view.

Carl was very popular in his neighborhood, and his town, and at work, because I think people knew that he cared about them. But he never seemed to realize how many people cared about him; he often saw himself as a loner. I wish he could have seen his memorial service where over 500 people showed up. At that memorial service the then mayor of Rockville, Phyllis Marcuccio, described Carl as “one of the kindest, gentlest, warmest individuals…” (See her remembrance of him HERE (YouTube video).) Every person who spoke mentioned how kind, caring, and warm he was – along with his intense focus on “peak oil”, which brought fond laughter every time it was mentioned. What a wonderful way to be remembered!

The city of Rockville, MD, insured that he would be remembered for generations to come, by renaming the bike/walking trail on which he had spent so many hours working to make sure that it was continuous and safe and well-marked, the Carl Henn Millennium Trail, and posting signs with that name all along the trail. The City also named its outstanding individual environmental achievement award for him, and the National Institutes of Health named an environmental award for him as well. He will be remembered.

My brother was just a good, good guy. And I truly hate saying “was.”

Climbing My Family Tree: Carl Henn Millenium Trail, Rockville MD
Carl Henn Millennium Trail, Rockville MD
photo courtesy of  his wife and daughters
(or it's possibly mine - we have a lot of pics of this sign by various people)
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Climbing My Family Tree: Map of Carl Henn Millenium Trail
Map of Carl Henn Millennium Trail in Rockville MD
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If you stumble across this page, and you knew Carl, I would count it a precious gift if you would share one of your memories of him in the comments below.


  1. I didn't know Carl. You are lucky to have him as your brother. What a great guy.

  2. I didn't know Carl. You are lucky to have him as your brother. What a great guy.

    1. Thank you so much for stopping by and reading. Yes, I was lucky.

  3. This is a lovely tribute to your brother, Jo. I see today is Carl's anniversary and my heart goes out to you. Losing a brother is like losing a limb - it never heals. Sending you hugs.


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