Friends, family remember ‘pillar of New London’ Myron Hendel
Waterford — Ruth Hendel always could count on a 9 a.m. phone call from her father-in-law, Myron Hendel, the longtime area businessman and community leader. But his daughter, Shelley Zelson, also received daily calls at 9 a.m. And somehow, Myron Hendel picked up the phone and rang his other daughters-in-law and all his 13 grandchildren promptly at 9 a.m. every day, or so the family joke goes.
“All the women in the family attest to him calling them at 9 in the morning,” Ruth Hendel said with a laugh. “He was the world’s first robocaller.”
Myron Hendel, who ran Hendel’s Inc., the Americana Furniture barn and a host of other businesses while dedicating decades of his life to community service, died Wednesday in his Waterford home, with his wife of 67 years, Rita, and other family at his side. He was 90 years old.
Myron Hendel’s contributions to the region are well known, including overseeing modernization of the Congregation Beth El synagogue as president in the 1970s; serving as founding trustee of the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut and, along with his wife, implementing a scholarship fund; twice serving as New London Redevelopment Agency president; chairing New London’s Water and Water Pollution Control Authority; and serving as president of Lyman Allyn Art Museum.
When asked about his hobbies, other than community service and traveling, several members of the Hendel family huddled around a phone on speaker Friday said that calling up family, friends and employees was one of Myron Hendel’s favorite activities. Not even a major stroke that put him in a wheelchair several years ago stunted his community spirit or his calls to loved ones.
“He never talked about himself,” Ruth Hendel said. “He always asked, ‘How are you?’”
Born in 1928 at what is now Lawrence + Memorial Hospital to Lithuanian immigrants Hilbert and Shirley Hendel, Myron Hendel graduated from Bulkeley High School in Hartford and earned a bachelor’s degree at Yale College and a law degree at Harvard Law School.
Then he returned home to join the family business.
“He could have been anything and he came back to New London,” said Jerry Fischer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut. “He sold furniture to the community, gasoline and propane ... I think he realized his living came from the community. The welfare of the community was very important to him. He was a pillar not just of the Jewish community but of the city of New London.”
Fischer noted that the family business got going in the early 1920s, when Hilbert Hendel and his cousin William Hendel sold their wares on foot in the region, later using a horse-drawn wagon on routes that included Groton, Mystic and New London.
When Myron Hendel’s health declined about a decade ago, his son, Jon, helped lead the family business. The family in October sold its Hendel’s Inc. Henny Penny locations to Virginia-based Petroleum Marketing Group Inc. but the family still operates its furniture businesses.
“He had a stroke and never complained. He was a fighter,” Jon Hendel said of his father. “His mind was always strong right up until the day he died. He taught me a lot about how to be an honest person in business, how to treat customers and employees with love and respect.”
‘A fast talker with a straight line’
As chairman of New London’s Water and Water Pollution Control Authority, Myron Hendel oversaw water contract negotiations with Waterford.
In a May 12, 1984, article in The Day detailing Myron Hendel’s handling of the negotiations, he was described as “smart ... savvy. A fast talker with a straight line, he doesn’t accept nonsense from anybody.”
“It was very tricky, very emotional, and it was a point of contention between the two towns,” said his son, Stephen.
The negotiations took a total of eight years, during which Myron Hendel saw two of his children married and gained four grandchildren, according to The Day archives.
“I had no idea they would be such long, strenuous negotiations, but sometimes these things happen, and the net result was worth it and should benefit both communities for years,” Myron Hendel told The Day on Oct. 28, 1988. The contract, still in place, expires in 2036.
“Everyone respected him and he had a reputation for being fair and smart and capable,” Stephen Hendel said Friday. “It was sort of a thankless task that could have been easily screwed up.”
Rena Linder, a former president of Congregation Beth El, described Myron Hendel as a bright, compassionate family man who, along with his wife, Rita, was dedicated to the arts and education. Rita Hendel is a former state Board of Education member who served on the board of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, which the Hendel family has strongly supported over the years.
“He never forgot anything,” Linder said. “I sat on the board of directors of Beth El with him and years later he could tell you who was sitting where, and what they said. He also wasn’t a publicity-hungry man at all. He didn’t want attention, but he could tell you everything. He was wonderful.”
Myron Hendel’s funeral is scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 25, at Temple Emanuel, 29 Dayton Road, in Waterford.