July 29, 2009 Edition

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Portrait of Positive Aging:
Giving back keeps them positive

A.J Henry Jr. and his wife, Janelle, of Walnut Ridge stay positive by giving back to their community as advocates for a variety of issues.

(Editor's note: The following feature is reprinted with permission and from the June 2009 issue of Aging Arkansas.) Rosemary Hallmark
Aging Arkansas

On the phone, Janelle Henry laughs out loud when asked what activities she and her husband, A.J., are involved in. "How much time do you have?" she asks. And it's no wonder. The Henrys' page-long list of credentials is enough to keep any couple on the move.

A.J. Henry Jr. currently serves on a large number of committees in Northeast Arkansas. He has worked as the interim building inspector for Walnut Ridge and chairman of the Walnut Ridge Water and Sewer Commission. He's currently president of the Northeast Arkansas Public Water Authority, a system that is being built to serve Lawrence and adjacent counties in Northeast Arkansas. "That's a building project that keeps me awfully busy," A.J. says. "Trying to get construction contracts and public hearings and all that goes with it. That takes a lot of my time."

The Henrys also spend countless hours working as advocates for older Arkansans. A.J. has served as a delegate to the Silver Haired Legislative Session since 1988, as well as serving as president or secretary of the Silver Haired Legislators Alumni Association of Arkansas since 1997. He has served several volunteer positions with AARP, including Associate State Coordinator for Community Operations and Assistant Coordinator for Grassroots and Federal Issues.

For the past 20 years A.J. has served on the Board of Directors for the East Arkansas Area Agency on Aging (AAA) and has been president of the board for 19 years. "We've got issues that we present to the Legislature. Sometimes I have to go down for committee meetings at the Capitol. We go and do some advocating for programs that need funding." A.J.'s busy schedule allows him to act as an advocate for aging Arkansans, but he knows he couldn't do what he does without the support of his wife, Janelle.

A.J. and Janelle were both widowed when they met in 1984. Janelle was related to a friend of A.J.'s through her previous husband, whose last name was also Henry. When their mutual acquaintance passed away, Janelle made an accidental phone call to A.J. The connection Janelle was expecting wasn't there but a new connection formed. Janelle and A.J. continued to regularly speak on the phone and met in person a few months later.

"I don't know how many times I went to see her," A.J. says, "but finally I proposed and we were married in Corning." The couple will celebrate their 25th anniversary on September 4, 2009.

"Meeting Janelle was a very unusual and wonderful experience," A.J. continues. "She worked at a nursing home at Monette before she met me."

"I was the main cook at the time," Janelle says.

"She's still the main cook around here," A.J. laughs.

The Henrys also enjoy cooking together. According to long-time AAA employee Debi Hottel, "The Henrys bake a chocolate cake for every Board and Advisory Council meeting. They say it takes both of them to do it. Mr. Henry stirs the icing. This is one great cake! We all look forward to it."

Janelle not only supports A.J., but also volunteers alongside him. She currently serves on the AAA's Advisory Council as well as a delegate to the Silver Haired Legislatures.

"We've been real good for each other," Janelle says.

A.J.'s passion for volunteer work didn't begin until after his retirement. "I had been in business in Hoxie and Walnut Ridge. These two towns had supported me for 35 years. While I was in business, I didn't have time to give anything back by way of volunteering to either city. When we were able to get out of those businesses, I thought it was time to give something back."

"I taught the AARP defensive driving course. I got involved a few years later in the AAA. I felt like I had time to get involved in volunteer work that would be beneficial to this section of the state. I'm glad I did," A.J. says.

There is little doubt that A.J. and Janelle are considered pillars of their community and the benefits of their volunteerism show. "Being involved in worthwhile projects helps me stay positive about life," A.J. says. "I get a lot of satisfaction out of helping people do things that they cannot do for themselves."

A.J. credits his parents, who passed away in an accident in 1964, as well as a past Bible study teacher with helping shape his ideas about right and wrong. He says he believes that through life experience, those ideas change. "I tell some of our friends in their 60s that they're going to change when they get into their 80s. You'll be a better person at 80 than you were at 60. I think that's due to the life experiences we have," A.J. says. "Life is a learning process to me. It's an educational process. I don't think a normal person ever quits learning with regard to different things, situations and people."

The Henrys' faith is also a large part of their lives. A.J. has conducted regular church services for nearly 30 years, preaching full time for 14 years, with Janelle always there to support him.

"The most important thing in living a good life is to become affiliated with the church and study the Bible. And in doing that, you try to live a life serving Christ, trying to do His will to the best of your ability, you will have the best life you can live here on Earth."

When asked what advice he has to offer older Arkansans, A.J. says, "Don't sit down and just watch TV and do nothing but stay at home. My advice is to get involved in something that keeps you active both mentally and physically. Whether it's volunteer work or working as a door greeter at Wal-Mart, keeping yourself busy and involved in something will keep you mentally alert and physically active."

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