by Paul Lefebvre
copyright the Chronicle August 1, 2012
MONTPELIER — As a one-legged fellow, Bernie Henault had a long stride: a stride that carried him through the doors of one social agency after another in the Kingdom and into the State House committee rooms here in the state’s capital.
Perhaps it was fitting and most appropriate then that the last tribute paid to Bernie was in the cafeteria where politicians and lobbyists mingle over lunch and pitch issues.
“He spent a great deal of his life roaming through these halls and that’s the reason why we’re meeting in this cafeteria,” said Sharon Henault, Bernie’s wife and partner in working for the poor and those who must cope with a physical disability.
Saturday’s potluck tribute to Mr. Henault, who died June 4, came on what would have been his seventieth birthday. A familiar figure at town meetings as well an animated talker on the streets of Island Pond, Mr. Henault was indefatigable in his advocacy for social justice for the poor and the disabled. Nor was he afraid to step outside the box.
“He was the best antidote to group think I know,” said Susan Yuan of Jericho, who served on low-income committees with Bernie.
She said he had a larger vision than most of the other committee members in that he saw that advocacy begins at home. She noted that Bernie urged other advocates to take the issues that affected their clients back to their local school boards and town meetings.
Ed Paquin of Montpelier, who once served as a state legislator in the House and is the current executive director of Disability Rights of Vermont — a nonprofit agency that provides legal representation to its clients — described Mr. Henault as a tenacious fighter for the cause and one not easy to appease.
“He was a great guy to call your bluff,” recalled Mr. Paquin, who gets around in a wheelchair.
Mr. Henault was 17 when he was struck by a drunk driver that led to the amputation of one of his legs, according to an interview he gave recently to a reporter with the Rutland Herald.
A man with an empty pant leg who relied solely on crutches, Mr. Henault was equally as passionate about education as he was social justice.
He served on the North Country Union High School Board and along with Sharon adopted two biracial girls, whom he guided on what to expect in a Northeast Kingdom public school system that historically sees few people of color.
Samantha, who is now a 21-year old single mom, living at home with her mother and going to college, recalled her public school experience as the “only girl with two disabled parents and the only mixed girl.”
Bernie, she said, taught her to feel proud that she was different, told her to hold her head high.
“He was always protective of me. Always,” she said, as she contended with a different problem in the same hallways where her father had once bent a legislator’s ear: Her two-year old daughter, Jaelyn, was acting up.
A Democrat who worked for Robert Kennedy in the party’s 1968 presidential primary, Mr. Henault was no stranger to electoral politics. He repeatedly ran for a seat in the Vermont House and, although he never won, his ardor for public service never diminished.
No doubt it was a trait that U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders admired and praised when he showed up Saturday in the closing moments of the tribute.
Their relationship dated back to the 1970s when the two worked together on low-income issues, recalled Mrs. Henault in a telephone interview this week.
“If Bernie was looking down from above I know he’d be pleased,” she said, adding that the two men were friends as well as political allies.
People who worked with Mr. Henault recalled that he had a big voice and a pointing finger when it came to advocating on behalf of his clients.
Testimonials Saturday recalled that Bernie told his clients to see themselves as differently able people, never disabled, which gave them a different outlook about themselves and the world.
More than one speaker remembered him as the person who initiated the first wheelchair, “Mini Olympics” games in the state. Or as the powerful voice who spearheaded the movement for independent living in the Kingdom.
Assertiveness was one of his traits.
“He was a guy to push you all he could if you represented the system,” noted one of the speakers.
Sarah Laundervill remembered meeting Bernie when she was teaching a class at Springfield College’s satellite campus in St. Johnsbury. Her students were making their final presentations in a course on social work. Bernie, who had come to the campus on another matter, stuck his head in the classroom to listen. He wasn’t impressed.
“You must do better if you’re going out into the community,” he told one of the students.
Afterwards, Ms. Laundervill said she made a point of engaging Bernie in a conversation, but recalled having a difficult time getting him to listen to her.
Someone in the group quickly picked up the thread of her story, saying that at this moment Bernie was no doubt up in heaven telling them how they could do it better.
“I don’t think God could get a word in edgewise,” she concluded.
People Saturday characterized Bernie as someone who was infallibly human, someone who had his weaknesses as well as his strengths. But most agreed that as an advocate he was a person who put the human in human services.
“It’s going to be very Bernie-like,” said Sharon, when she earlier characterized how she expected the tribute would play out.
“Very informal with people sitting around eating and talking.”
That’s pretty much the way it went with one exception: On behalf of the Vermont Statewide Independent Living Council, Harriet Hall presented a plaque to Mrs. Henault in recognition of Bernie’s efforts for the group.
contact Paul Lefebvre at [email protected]