Ruth Henderson dies -- 'a dynamic, caring person'
Ruth Henderson, a generous force of nature who helped reshape the cultural life of western Connecticut, died recently at her home on Hunt Hill Farm in the Northville district of New Milford.
"I think Ruth was one of the most intelligent and graceful women I've ever met,'' said Janet Serra, head of communications for the Western/Northwest Connecticut Convention and Visitor's Bureau, one of the many organizations to which Henderson was dedicated.
"I knew her for 30 years," she added. "She wasn't just a mentor. She was a role model.''
Staff at the farm confirmed Henderson, the wife of the late musician Skitch Henderson, died Feb. 25 after a brief illness.
After moving to a 300-year old farm here in 1968, Henderson set about making it more than a farm.
In 1972, she opened The Silo, a combination gourmet kitchenware store, cooking school and art gallery. It became the core of Hunt Hill Farm Trust, a 135-acre farm the Henderson's preserved to be a cultural center, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places and is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.
Filled with the Hendersons' collection of Americana and Arts and Crafts objects, and with its programs of music and arts, the farm brought people to the area and introduced them to its beauty.
It was a mission Ruth Henderson had been carrying on, in various ways, for more than 40 years.
"Ruth's energy, her perseverance and her dedication to preservation of open space is a testament to her memory," said Liba Furhman, executive director of Hunt Hill Farm Trust Inc.
From the deck of her home, a former barn, Henderson could view the wildflowers, stone walls, grassy knolls, even an old tobacco barn in her backyard.
"The sense of place was very important to her,'' Serra said.
The farm was just one of the places Henderson changed for the better.
She was involved with promoting tourism in Litchfield County and was one of the founders of the Litchfield Hills Visitors Bureau.
A strong supporter of New Milford Hospital, she and her husband were among the best fundraisers in the hospital's history.
"Before I retired as chairman of the executive committee, I made Ruth a trustee emeritus of the hospital," attorney Terry Pellegrini, a longtime member of the hospital's Board of Directors, said.
She helped her husband found the New York Pops orchestra in 1983. At her death, she was president of the orchestra's Board of Directors.
"When it came to fundraising for the hospital or The New York Pops," Pellegrini noted, "she could strong-arm anybody into donating. She was the spark."
Ruth Henderson -- then Ruth Einsiedel -- was born Jan. 12, 1930, in Planen, Germany, to a family that loved cooking and good food.
"I got to know Ruth well enough to learn her life story," Pellegrini said. "She was a teenager at the end of World War II, living in Leipzig, Germany. She and her mother walked to safety in (what is now) the Czech Republic."
She arrived in the United States in 1951.
In a book she and Skitch wrote together, she told how she came to the United States with the clothes she was wearing and two bags -- one containing a featherbed, the other a set of dishes.
Yet she soon established herself as a model.
"She was stunning,'' Furhman said.
The story is this -- one day, Skitch Henderson walked out of a recording studio in New York City. His future wife was parked across the street. They started talking and drove off together. They were married in 1958.
"Ruth was such a powerhouse," said her friend Louise King, who helped create The Silo. "She was a model in New York City when she met Skitch -- beautiful, not at all self-centered."
"You could see how Skitch took one look at her and said `Wow!' It was big love," King added.
Once established at Hunt Hill Farm, the two became a part of the Greater New Milford community.
"Ruth was the most dynamic, caring person. It was a privilege to work with her for 28 years," said Susan York, longtime executive director of Hunt Hill Farm and controller for the New York Pops.
"It was a huge decision to leave," said York, who departed in 2010 to care for family. "Ruth created this wonderful place for everyone to enjoy. I am very, very happy to have known her in my life. She taught me so much."
Furhman remembered Henderson's part in the successful fight to stop Sempra, a company that wanted to build a power plant in town.
"She was smart and warm,'' Furhman said. "But when she wanted to do something, she'd move mountains to get it done."
In 2003, the management and maintenance of The Silo came under the auspice of the Hunt Hill Farm Trust Inc., a non-profit formed in association with the Smithsonian Institution.
The Silo buildings were donated to the trust.
"Ruth was a passionate leader and a visionary," said Arthur C. Weinshank, president of Hunt Hill Farm Trust. "In 2003, she and Skitch founded the non-profit trust to continue their cultural and artistic legacy of music, visual, performing, and culinary arts."
Nancy Stuart, of Bridgewater, worked for Henderson at The Silo for 29 years.
"It was a family,'' Stuart said. "We didn't call ourselves friends. We were roomies.''
As was often the case, Stuart said, Henderson taught people by example.
"She taught me how to run a store, to talk to customers,'' she said. "She was a role model.''
And, Furhman said, she was also a woman of enormous Old World charm.
"She could get anyone to do anything,'' she said.
Henderson is survived by her daughter Heidi, son Hans, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. A memorial service is planned for the spring.