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The Unforgettable Melvin Henderson

January 18, 2013

Melvin Henderson easily won the title  “Most Athletic” for Germantown High School‘s Class of 1969. He was the kind of athlete that coaches, players, and classmates never forget.

Melvin didn’t win the title “Senior Most Likely to Be Remembered” in the Senior Superlatives that enshrined classmates in the requisite Hall of Fame. But he should have.Because Melvin Henderson did what no one else in our class could do. He made history in our hearts.

We all still remember our junior year, when desegregation came to Germantown High School (back then it was officially known as M. C. Williams H.S.). Melvin was one of a half dozen or so brave students transferred into our class from the all-black Mt. Pisgah.

The desegregation experience at Germantown was initially unremarkable. The black students were understandably shy. They kept together. We all pretended not to notice our social awkwardness while living out an important chapter of Memphis history.

Then Melvin Henderson decided to play football, a sport not offered at Mt. Pisgah. And Melvin began to make his own history at Germantown High.

In two short years, Melvin became one of the best athletes ever seen at Germantown. In 1969, his second year ever to play organized football, he made the All County team, playing end. In basketball, he was a Tennessee All State selection. He won long jump and broad jump competitions at the Shelby County track meet in the spring of 1969.

Melvin was a star, a natural athlete. He excelled at every sport he attempted, blowing us all away with his abilities. By rights accorded to every high school’s über-gifted, Melvin could have played the big shot. But Melvin didn’t swagger. No  hotdogger he. He never sought the limelight, just stepped up and did whatever it took to win.

Mel2

Our classmate Larry Adams remembers:

Melvin taught me a lesson well before the movie White Men Can’t Jump … In basketball, I could just barely touch the rim and he white men can't jumpcould back hand dunk. I went from 6th man to the bottom of the bench…What really taught me a lesson was in track. I would consistently jump over 20 feet in long jump. My personal best was 21 foot 10 inches. Melvin came over to try it, had never jumped in a long-jump pit before and he jumped 23+ his first jump…

One unusual thing I noticed was when they talked him into playing football, he was fast but it was like a football was a greased pig. He could not hold on to it, but if you threw him a basketball it was like he had glue on his hands.

Melvin was a well-rounded athlete and his friendly manner helped me get over southern prejudice against my black brothers and sisters.

Our Class of ’69 quarterback and  resident Golden Boy Cliff Fleener recalls:

I remember Melvin as a good guy. No hard edge. Always smiling. He walked with dignity and was fun to be around.

Sports-wise I have a couple of enduring memories. Our basketball team played Larry Finch-led Melrose during our junior year. Melvin was the only one on our team who could really play with the Spartans. He was their equal and better.

Secondly, I remember Melvin catching a touchdown pass against MUS our senior year on a play we drew up in the huddle. Considering Melvin’s speed and skill, I wonder what would have happened if we had done that all year?

For over 40 years I have occasionally wondered about Melvin and how his life turned out. I hope most of it was enjoyable for him. Strange how, after all this time, I’m saddened by hearing of his passing. RIP Mel.

Mel4When we held our 40th reunion in 2009, everyone wanted to know if Melvin was coming. We tried unsuccessfully to find him and all of our black classmates. Even after the reunion, I kept trying to find Melvin.

With great sorrow, I found him last week in the Commercial Appeal’s obituaries. Melvin had been living in Olive Branch and making a living as a long-haul trucker. Before that, he worked with UPS. He married once and divorced. He had no children. Melvin died after losing a long battle with kidney disease.

I attended the visitation and spoke with Barry, one of his five brothers and six siblings. (All of Melvin’s brothers played sports in Shelby County Schools. Their parents Cliff and Elsie faithfully attended each son’s games, even when it meant splitting up to cover simultaneous events in different venues.)

Barry reminded me that Melvin was recruited by storied coach Ron Greene to be a founding player of the basketball program at the University of New Orleans (then known as LSU-New Orleans). He played four years for Coach Greene, graduating in 1973.When Melvin was a sophomore, UNO was ranked number one in the nation in the final AP Division 2 poll. Melvin held the record for best career performance in UNO history until recently, and still holds records in a number of offensive categories. (Thanks to Chuck Rutledge for finding this online.)

Our classmate Tom Symmes reports from Louisiana:

An interesting story about Melvin … a couple of years ago, the University of New Orleans career scoring record (in basketball) was broken by their top player at that time … who has attempted to play professionally over in Europe. Several articles about that were in the local newspaper. In reading them, it mentioned that the record which he broke was previously held by Mel Henderson. Melvin’s record held up for several decades.

Really sorry to learn of his passing, he was really an integral person in our graduating class — and a really great athlete to boot.

Yes, we tend to remember great athletes we’ve known and played with or against. But Melvin Henderson was much more than a star athlete to our class. For many of us white teenagers at Germantown High School in the years 1967-1969, Melvin Henderson was our first black friend. He was talented, friendly, fun, a great teammate, and a gentleman. As one of a handful of black students who integrated an all-white Memphis-area school in a time of enormous racial prejudice, Melvin showed us what courage, character, grace and dignity look like. He made us better people by having known him. How many people like that do you meet in a lifetime?

Rest in peace, my friend.

Mel3

Thanks to Suzette Strong Peterson and Carol Bryant Sims for yearbook photos, and to Larry Adams, Cliff Fleenor, and Tom Symmes for sharing their memories. Have a memory of Melvin? Share them in a Comment below or to me via eddie@backinrivercity.com

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Anthony Settles permalink
    January 18, 2013 11:06 pm

    Ed Great job! You should share this with the Tri-State Defender. My old boss at the Boys Club, Mr Smith, his son owns and is the editor in chief! His name is Bernal Smith Jr.

    Date: Fri, 18 Jan 2013 22:47:13 +0000 To: bigtviking77@hotmail.com

  2. Cliff Fleenor permalink
    January 19, 2013 12:40 am

    Well done Eddie. I believe Mel would appreciate your words. I do.

    From Beijing, China (picking up grandchild #10.)

    Sent from my iPhone

    • January 19, 2013 8:09 pm

      Thanks, Cliff. Really appreciate your comments. What a blessing to have 10 grands! Atta’ boy, Golden boy.

  3. Travis Lewis permalink
    January 19, 2013 2:53 am

    Great article, Eddie. Thanks for sharing with us. Travis Lewis, C3

  4. January 24, 2013 1:21 am

    This is Melvin’s brother Columbus Henderson, I came to Germantown in 1967 with Melvin as a freshman. I can recall the the first year we were there and how sports seemed to bring everybody together regardless of the color of your skin. Melvin’s personality and athletic skills brought about a change at M.C.Williams High School, which is now known as Germantown High. On behalf of the Henderson family we would like to thank you for a job well done on this documentary of our beloved brother Melvin James Henderson, (R.I.P).

    Thanks,
    Mr. Settles

    • January 24, 2013 5:07 am

      Columbus, Rozell, and Barry: Thank you all for the kind words you’ve sent. Eve and I feel blessed that we were able to share our memories of your beloved brother with so many. We have heard from a number of our classmates at Germantown. We will all miss him. Wishing you the very best.

  5. peter2244 permalink
    February 16, 2013 3:11 pm

    I am most grateful to Mr. Settles for putting together this tribute to Melvin Henderson. I too had been trying to find him and see how things turned out for him. I had tears in my eyes when I read that he had so recently passed away. I was several years behind his class but I was impressed with his positive demeanor and work ethic. I remember sitting in the gym watching him practice; sometimes just all on his own. God Bless his family and friends. He will be missed but his positive contributions to all our lives will live on.

    Many thanks again for your efforts Mr. Settles…

    • February 18, 2013 3:08 am

      Thanks for commenting, Peter. We are finding out more about Melvin from family and friends who sharing their memories. He touched many lives.

    • February 18, 2013 4:21 am

      Thanks Dear.

      See what a world class blogger like my wife can do!

      I love you!

      Tigger

  6. February 25, 2013 3:11 am

    Eddie, I remember Melvin so well. I have wondered for some time where Melvin was. He came by the house several times after he left college but I hadn’t seen him for a number of years. My son, Steve , played basketball and he and Melvin were friends. Melvin would come over to our house (we lived right behind the school on Arthur) after practice to wait for his ride home. They played a lot of records on the stereo and one of them I cannot forget…. “Skinny Legs and All”, and Kennedy Burroughs (not known for basketball ability, but a friendly guy) would show up and they would go from one crazy song to another…..and sing along. Melvin was always laughing and joking….a happy kid. Sometimes I took Melvin home and I had an opportunity to meet his mother and the whole nice family.
    The first time Melvin was to play basketball for Coach Couch we went to Olive Branch. I took Steve and Melvin in my car (that was before the county could use a bus). Melvin said that he might not be allowed to play. Jerry didn’t start him, but pretty soon turned the game over to him and what a show he put on!
    My husband and I, and Jerry Couch and his wife went to New Orleans a couple of times to see Melvin play at college when he and Buddy Morton were there. I felt he had a future in professional basketball but there were some breaks he didn’t get along the way. I was so sad to read of his death.

  7. peter2244 permalink
    May 18, 2013 6:27 pm

    Additional information on Melvin after he left Germantown (M.C. Williams) High School. As Jean indicated in her post, he attended University of New Orleans and played for the Privateers from 1969 to 1973 and set a number of team records. Remarkably, after over 40 years, some of those records remain:

    Career Records:
    Points: 1,854 Mel Henderson, 1969-1973 ( 736 FG 382 FT in 94 games)
    Games scoring 20 or more points: 60 Mel Henderson 1969-1973
    Field Goals: 736 Mel Henderson, 1969-1973 (1,612 Attemps: 45.7%)
    Free Throws: 382 Mel Henderson, 1969-1973 (538 Attempts: 71%)
    Disqualifications: 17 Mel Henderson, 1969-1973
    Personal Fouls per Game: 3.5 Mel Henderson, 1969-1973 (327 in 94 games)

    Season Records:
    Personal Fouls per Game: 3.8 Mel Henderson, 1969-1970 (87 in 23 games)

    Other Records:
    Most Points in 2nd Half: (tied with 3 others, Melvin was the first to do it) 27 Mel Henderson vs Georgia Southern Dec 19, 1972 (12 FG 3 FT)

    Average Points per Game by a Freshman: 19.3 Mel Henderson 1969-1970 (445 points in 23 games)
    Average Points per Game by a Sophomore: 19.5 Mel Henderson 1970-1971(506 points in 26 games)

    Points in a game by a Freshman: 32 Mel Henderson vs West Alabama Dec 15, 1969
    Points in a game by a Sophomore: 32 Mel Henderson vs Virginia Commonwealth Jan 30, 1971
    Rebounds in a game by a Junior (tied with 2 others, Melvin was the second to do it) 25 vs Georgia State Dec 20 1971

    These are just the records. He is also top 5 in several other categories. This is all the more remakable when considering that as the years went by the number of games per season went up.

    Thanks again Eve and Eddie for your work on this.

  8. May 20, 2013 12:27 am

    Thanks so much, Jean and Peter for the great contributions to Melvin’s story. What impressive records! I did a double-take on the low foul record. I think Eddie may have a record for 3.8 fouls per game at Germantown. : )

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