Alec G. Henley loved St. John’s. His favourite spot was Signal Hill, looking down on his native city. In January, 2009, he gave an interview there. It was a frigid, howling day, but Mr. Henley, upright and unfazed at 86, still got out of his black Buick to take in the view.
“Now this is some wind,” he told The Telegram.
The newspaper’s story was about Mr. Henley’s post-retirement life, after he left Alec G. Henley and Associates Ltd., which he established in 1954 and built into one of Atlantic Canada’s leading life and disability insurance firms. He was still very active – and still full of opinions. He supported St. John’s amalgamation, blamed the federal government for mishandling the fishery and thought the provincial government’s acquisition of a stake in the Hebron offshore oil project was “for the birds.”
But if he was forthright, he was not cantankerous. He was thankful for his business and other successes, and especially for his family: “The best thing you have going for you.”
His work ethic was formidable; even after retirement he was still in the office at 9 a.m., dressed in a suit. But the weekends were always about family.
He met his wife, Catherine Tobin, in 1946. She had a degree in business administration and worked at the American consulate in St. John’s. They married in 1948 and had four children.
Family discussion of politics, religion and other topics was encouraged, and a typical Henley family supper was described as a meeting of six people and eight opinions. Equally integral to family life were summers at their place by the Royal Newfoundland Yacht Club in Manuels, and an annual salmon-fishing trip down the Gander River.
In addition, he put in decades of volunteer work that included being a founding member of the St. John’s Jaycees and the Society for the Care of Crippled Children, and playing pivotal roles in two historically significant St. John’s events – the 1984 visit of Pope John Paul II, and the ongoing Royal St. John’s Regatta.
Mr. Henley died on Feb. 21, at the age of 90.
He was born Aloysius Gonzaga Henley on Sept. 30, 1922. His parents were John J. and Catherine (Brennan). The Brennans had a large farm and the Henleys, from Devon, England, were St. John’s merchants, with John J. operating the Henley Mattress Company. (The firm’s memorable slogan: “Wide awake when you buy them/Sound asleep when you try them.”)
He was the second youngest of 13 brothers and sisters, and followed the nine older boys to St. Bonaventure’s College. When he was 6, he asked his family to call him “Alec,” as he didn’t think the family nickname “Ali” would go down well at the all-boy’s school.
The Henleys had a big house on Newtown Road, as was needed for such a large, lively clan. They were Roman Catholic, and devout; Alec’s elder sister, Mary, entered a convent.
The family was also vulnerable to the medical scourges of the day. Four of the Henley boys died in the 1920s, one from a ruptured appendix, three from tuberculosis.
The need for hard work and the importance of looking after others were social lessons Mr. Henley did not forget. He believed in making money honestly (and in the miracle of compound interest).
Indeed, he seemed never far from the unfolding history and politics of Newfoundland. When he was 9 he witnessed the 1932 riot at the Colonial Building, spurred by unrest over poverty and unemployment.
As a Boy Scout, he paraded with Royal Newfoundland Regiment veterans of the First World War.
A member of the anti-Confederation Responsible Government League, led by Peter Cashin, he was very involved in the debates and referenda that decided what Newfoundland’s political future would be after the Commission of Government.
Pre-Confederation, in 1948, he helped found the Progressive Conservative Party, and was the last surviving member of this feisty group who came together when it took guts to be a Tory and to even think of going up against Newfoundland’s first premier, Joseph Smallwood.
“Like a lot of people, he saw the need for an opposition,” said Chief Justice William Marshall, a former provincial Tory deputy premier and cabinet minister. It was a generation before the Progressive Conservatives formed a government, although anti-Confederation St. John’s consistently voted them in.
Mr. Henley never ran provincially or federally, but was an active party member. He did run civically and was a city councillor in the 1950s and 60s, first elected in 1955, at 32. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1965, losing to William Gilbert Adams. He later said it was a fortuitous loss, as he was happiest in business.
And there he was greatly successful. Mr. Henley first worked as a land surveyor during the construction of the St. John’s Airport, then started as an insurance underwriter in 1944. He earned, by correspondence, his Chartered Life Underwriters designation in 1953, and founded his company the next year. He was also a founding shareholder and CEO of Avalon Cablevision, which introduced cable to the St. John’s area.
Not that he set his political opinions aside. He had many, and they were strongly held. For example, he was never convinced that Newfoundland was fairly treated during the Terms of Union negotiations, and always contended that Responsible Government should have been restored first.
He also fought the sale and conversion of St. John’s Memorial Stadium and spent thousands of dollars trying to preserve the memorial to Newfoundland’s war dead as a recreational, not commercial, space – but in vain. The building is now a grocery superstore.
His view of the city was always broad and forward-looking. In 1976, he chaired the Royal Commission on Regional Government for the St. John’s Urban Region (“The Henley Commission”), which first proposed such infrastructure as the Harbour Arterial Road, the Crosstown Arterial Road and the Outer Ring Road.
“They made very good recommendations, [resulting in] good changes; he had foresight,” Chief Justice Marshall said. The arterial road was just one thing Mr. Henley envisioned “long, long before” anyone else.
It was perhaps useful preparation for his later joining the national planning committee of the Canadian Conference of Bishops for the 1984 12-day visit of Pope John Paul II to Canada; he also chaired the host committee for the Pope’s visit to Newfoundland.
That was a singular achievement, including not just incredible logistics of travel and security (and co-ordinating 8,000 volunteers), but the persuasive ability to convince Vatican officials that the Pope should come to Newfoundland in the first place. Oh, and also celebrate mass at Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in Flatrock.
The first response from Vatican security and the RCMP was a flat-out no.
But Mr. Henley persisted, and on Sept. 12 the Pope said mass for an audience of 80,000.
(To add to the security headache, on the eve of the papal visit, Mr. Henley’s car was broken into and his briefcase, with all the details, was stolen. He notified the RCMP and Vatican security, who were very concerned. The next night his car was broken into again, and the briefcase returned, with nothing missing. The police told him they didn’t know who the thief was, but suspected he or she was Catholic.)
In 1985 he was made Knight of the Order of St. Gregory by the Pope.
As for the Regatta, his involvement dated from the 1940s, first as a rower and coxswain. He then joined the committee in 1944. The Regatta, traditionally scheduled for the first Wednesday in August, is the only holiday in North America determined by a civic committee, which bases its decision on the weather, especially forecasted winds.
Mr. Henley relished the disruption this caused the federal government and mainland firms. To him, that independence, and such elements of the day as having the rowing teams sponsored by local firms, patronizing the charity booths with their Crown and Anchors, and socializing among tens of thousands of people on the banks of Quidi Vidi Lake, said everything about St. John’s.
His other charitable work was extensive, but unlike his political views, something he kept quiet. Among his many endeavours, he helped establish the Children’s Rehabilitation Centre in the Pleasantville neighbourhood in 1964.
Even recently, he read three papers a day, The Telegram, The Globe and Mail and the International Herald Tribune – and The Economist every week. He enjoyed golfing, curling and cheering on the Detroit Red Wings.
“I held him in high regard and valued his friendship,” said Mr. Marshall. “He was a good guy, a very good guy.”
Mr. Henley leaves his wife Catherine, and children Janet, Brian, John and Christopher, 11 grandchildren, and one great-grandson.