No slowing a Henley man

Even in his twilight years, this well-known businessman, volunteer and community leader stays active and engaged

Terry Roberts editor@cbncompass.ca
Published on January 13, 2009
At 86 years of age, businessman Alec G. Henley still goes into his Duckworth Street office each day and follows his routine. - Photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram

It's mid-afternoon atop Signal Hill in St. John's and the January winds are howling.

Standing upright in one spot is next to impossible.

But this is Alec G. Henley's favourite spot, and the 86-year-old loves the view of his beloved city from here.

So he opens the door to his black Buick and fearlessly faces the relentless gale.

It's mid-afternoon atop Signal Hill in St. John's and the January winds are howling.

Standing upright in one spot is next to impossible.

But this is Alec G. Henley's favourite spot, and the 86-year-old loves the view of his beloved city from here.

So he opens the door to his black Buick and fearlessly faces the relentless gale.

Never one to recoil when life unleashes a little turbulence, Henley stands defiantly, his black raglan and silver hair fluttering wildly.

"Now this is some wind," he remarks, struggling to catch his breath.

Like his ancestors from Devon, England, Henley has a long history with the city sprawling out beneath him, beginning as a nine-year-old when he witnessed the famous 1932 riot outside the Colonial Building.

As a boy scout, he marched in parades with First World War veterans, and was a driving force behind the establishment of the Progressive Conservative party around the time of Confederation.

His company, Alec G. Henley and Associates Ltd., was established in the 1950s and is one of Atlantic Canada's leading life and disability insurance firms. Henley spent years at the helm but his son Brian took over several years ago.

"I still sign the cheques," Henley likes to joke.

Even in his twilight years, he has remained active and engaged.

"At 86, you're not young anymore, but it's a good feeling to still be healthy and have all my faculties," Henley said during a recent interview.

He's at his Duckworth Street office building each morning before 9 a.m., dressed sharply in a business suit, tending to his business interests and staying current by reading newspapers.

The walls of his office are covered with photos, certificates and even cartoons, providing a fascinating glimpse of a man who's been a prominent member of the business community for more than a half-century, served as a city councillor in the 1950s and '60s, and has been extensively involved in community and church affairs from his early days.

He's never been shy about giving his opinion when it comes to politics, development or business, and was regarded by many as a rebel when he was first elected to city council.

He smirks when describing a newspaper cartoon on his office wall from the '50s, depicting a free-thinking Henley surrounded by councillors with deep loyalty to then-premier Joey Smallwood.

"I got a lot of support for that," he recalled.

Henley hasn't mellowed with age.

For several years earlier this decade, he became immersed in the debate over Memorial Stadium. He argued it was a memorial to the province's war dead and spent thousands of dollars of his own money on a campaign to preserve the site for recreational uses. The controversial decision to allow the sale of the property to Loblaws and permit the construction of a Dominion supermarket still eats at him.

"It's not going to succeed because there's a curse put on it," he said of Mile One Centre, which replaced Memorial Stadium.

He blames "parochial politics" for the municipal governance structure in the St. John's region, and has long believed in amalgamation. He says the new wastewater treatment plant in St. John's was built in the wrong location, condemns successive federal governments for mismanaging the fishery, and is critical of the provincial government's decision to buy an equity stake in the Hebron offshore oil project.

"This crazy ownership idea is for the birds," he said, adding that the province should instead focus on a royalty regime that will allow the building of secondary industries.

His unsuccessful bid for the mayor's chair in 1965 was a blessing, he added.

"Because I was defeated, I cut the strings to politics and devoted my life to building my business. That paid off because otherwise I'd be a political has-been. My companies now are very successful, thank God, and I'm better off for it."

Henley has been a passionate supporter of the Royal St. John's Regatta since the mid-1940s, has long supported an association dedicated to assisting crippled children, has chaired or served on several commissions and government task forces and many boards and committees.

He enjoys golfing and curling, and only recently parted with his beloved sailboat.

He also chaired the host committee for the 1984 visit of Pope John Paul II to the province, an experience that led to a friendship with the popular church leader, who died in 2005. Henley was knighted by the Pope in recognition for his contribution to the Catholic Church in Newfoundland.

Henley is deeply religious and says he's been blessed with a wonderful family, a successful business career and the ability to give back to his community through various means.

Henley and his wife Catherine (Tobin) were married 60 years last September. Their four children - Janet, Brian, John and Christopher - have successful and distinguished careers, and the Henleys' 11 grandchildren are a source of great pride.

He admits that making money is one of his greatest passions, but he hasn't let his ambition destroy his values or come between him and his family.

"The best thing you have going for you is family. I have a good wife, and she's also my best friend," he said.

troberts@thetelegram.com