August 15, 2003
There's a good chance that someone will stand up at Miss Hen's funeral Saturday and call her the Mother Teresa of Larrabee Street, Cabrini-Green. If you didn't know her, though, that description doesn't evoke the person you'd have seen if you'd seen Miss Hen, who died Sunday at 73 with hardly a wrinkle in her face.
Miss Hen--officially named Henry Johns--was an ample woman with a big laugh, a wide smile and a way of being quiet that made you pay attention. For almost half a century, she helped keep Cabrini sane.
"She was everybody's mama, every kid's grandmama," said Janet Stewart, who on Thursday was collecting signatures on a card for Miss Hen's family. "The community has lost a lot. Everything was Miss Hen, Miss Hen, Miss Hen."
When Miss Hen left her native Arkansas in 1951 to escape the cows and chickens that she loathed, she was just part of the legions of black Southerners migrating north in search of work and freedom. What she and her husband found a few years later was Cabrini-Green, a newish public housing complex near Chicago's Gold Coast. The neighborhood then was a working-class place where African-Americans mixed with white immigrants, everybody on their way up and out. At least that was the dream.
But the white people moved away. Gangs and drugs moved in.
Cabrini became a national symbol of public housing gone bad. What good remained depended hugely on the efforts of a few residents like Miss Hen who had witnessed the original Cabrini vision.
"She was part of the inner core of Cabrini," said Rev. Charles Infelt, who runs tiny Holy Family Lutheran Church next to the red-brick high-rises at 1015 and 1017 N. Larrabee. "You didn't want to move forward with anything before you checked with Hen."
Miss Hen raised her six children in Cabrini. Then she raised her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She was the beating heart and guiding light of an extended family that did not escape the ravages of Cabrini life. Among her heartbreaks was the gang killing of a grandson she adored.
But Miss Hen's family reached far beyond her blood. As president of the 1015 and 1017 buildings, she helped clear the drug dealers, if not from the buildings, at least from the lobby. She ran the tenant patrol. She ran the rec room where people with no place to go could sit for hours playing dominoes. She cooked regularly for the volunteers who help fix up Cabrini buildings. Her specialties were fried chicken and peach cobbler.
Her devotion, and that of a few of her women friends, to Cabrini inspired Bob Jewell to volunteer there for the last dozen years.
"These women had the resources to leave, but they made their decision to stay and help even though there's so much chaos on a daily basis," said Jewell, a Loop businessman. "It changed how I looked at things. They were very influential in my life."
I got to know Miss Hen while writing about the current plan to transform Cabrini and its surroundings into a mixed-income neighborhood. She was for integration, but against the demolition that has slowly emptied her old home.
"She was entrenched in the past," Infelt said. "She would have been a full participant in the future, but she was sad when someone moved out instead of rejoicing."
You had to wonder: What drove Miss Hen?
"It wasn't power," Infelt said, "but she enjoyed power. She liked the role of taking care of everything, and she handled it with grace and nobility. And she could handle a lot of pain. That's why you could come to her."
When she did talk about the troubles in her own life, it was always through a smile that glossed the pain. And yet when one of her sons died recently, she didn't bounce back in her ordinary way. She seemed, at last, tired. And so on Sunday, after a stroke and days in a coma, Miss Hen died.
Every life carries in it the history of a time and place, some lives more vividly than others. Miss Hen's passing is another moment in the vanishing of Cabrini-Green and of our tangible link to what it meant to be poor and black in Chicago in the second half of the 20th Century. We should remember.
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