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A Tribute to Dr Derek Henderson, 1929 to 2009

Date Released: Thu, 13 August 2009 16:22 +0200

With deep sadness we acknowledge the passing of Dr Derek Scott Henderson, Rhodes University’s Vice-Chancellor for 21 years from 1975 to 1996. Dr Henderson died at Settlers’ Hospital last Friday surrounded by his family, just four months after the death of his beloved wife, Dr Thelma Henderson.

Dr Henderson was the first South African and first Rhodes-educated man to become Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University. He also had the distinction of being appointed South Africa’s first ever professor of computer science at Wits University in 1967. Holding degrees from the world’s best universities – Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard – Dr Henderson was a serious academic and an educationist at heart. He brought to Rhodes a more business-oriented perspective, transforming the University into a financially viable institution and attracting strong academics. Above all, his intentions were to raise Rhodes in the tradition of the great universities of the world. 

A firm believer in the paramount importance of democracy, education and equal access for all race groups, the former Vice-Chancellor and his officials defied the nationalist government in 1979 by making Rhodes the first university in South Africa to integrate races in student residences.

Dr Henderson attended St John’s College in Johannesburg where he became a headboy and matriculated in 1945. He completed a BSc at Rhodes in 1948 with distinctions in maths, applied maths and physics and then took up a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University in 1951. He then sharpened his qualifications with another honours degree, this time in the logic section of the moral sciences tripos at Cambridge University. While waiting to go to Oxford a senior classics lecturer, S Whiteley, suggested he spend some time educating himself properly in the classics department. He had also elected to learn touch-typing with the university’s secretarial candidates and later claimed that it was the combination of Greek, schoolboy Latin and typing that led him to computers.

A move into the corporate world saw Dr Henderson joining Anglo American Corporation as private secretary to Harry Oppenheimer in 1956. He then started lecturing mathematics at Wits until his interest in computers led him to Harvard University where he obtained his doctorate in applied mathematics, making him one of only 12 doctorates in the field of computer science at the time. He then joined IBM, the world’s largest computer company at the time, and was part of the architectural team that designed the prototype of the IBM 360 family of computers. He later returned to Wits where he developed and directed the country’s first computer centre and, in 1967, was appointed Professor of Computer Science and later Dean of Science at Wits before becoming the third Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes.

In the early years at Wits he met and in 1958 married Geography lecturer Thelma Mullins, whose strong social conscience made the couple a formidable team who became a great asset to the Grahamstown community. Dr Henderson was to say later that if his wife’s 1974 Progressive Party anti-apartheid campaign to become a member of the Transvaal provincial legislature had succeeded, he might not have become Rhodes’ Vice-Chancellor.

Upon his retirement, when financial insolvency threatened the existence of the Grahamstown Foundation in September 1999, Dr Henderson worked tirelessly to keep the doors of the 1820 National Settlers Monument open. Having served on the Council since 1975, he acted initially as a volunteer curator and, as the situation improved, as Executive Director on a stipend until 2002.

During his tenure at Rhodes, Dr Henderson served on the State President’s Scientific Advisory Council from 1988 to 1994 and on the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) from 1982 to 1987. After retirement he was a member of the Grahamstown Transitional Local Council and the Council of St Andrew’s College, and honorary life president of the Grahamstown Foundation Council. He was also a former treasurer of the Eastern Cape Branch of the Royal Society of South Africa.

Dr Henderson’s death is a great loss to the Rhodes and Grahamstown communities and he will be remembered fondly by the many people whose lives he touched.

Rhodes University lowers its flag and extends its deepest sympathy to Dr Henderson’s family in their personal loss of an exemplary man and role model, a loyal partner, and devoted father and grandfather.

The funeral, which will include an academic procession, will take place in the Rhodes Chapel at 14:30 on Tuesday, 18 August 2009.