His career shaped the government

March 3, 2019

Born and raised in tiny Buckingham, Laurin Henry played a significant role in helping to train executives for the federal government.

Henry, now 97, lives in retirement in Charlottesville, Va., reading a lot of American history. He’s in a book club.

He helped to make a bit of American history, too.

Born in Buckingham in 1921, he originally did not know if he would be able to go to college. His family was short on funds. Everyone was short on funds during the Depression years.

But he wound up going to DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. He knew some friends who had gotten scholarships there and prospered. It was the beginning of an academic career that would lead to degrees from the University of Chicago and teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University.

At the Federal Executive Institute, his role was to polish executives for top-level civil service jobs. He also worked and consulted for many federal government agencies, including the Bureau of the Budget, where he studied federal research grants; NASA, where he worked on their plans to handle university research grants; and the General Accounting Office, where he studied recruiting, training and personnel policies.

But his best known area of expertise was on presidential transitions. He wrote a book on the subject in 1960. Copies still can be found on Amazon. Of the ones he studied, the move from Dwight D. Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy was handled best. He also studied the moves from Woodrow Wilson to Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover to Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman to Eisenhower. Though it took place after his book, he also gives high marks to the transition from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan.

Government then, he says, had a less caustic atmosphere than it has today, but “it was not a conflict-free time.” There was a bit more of a center in the country, rather than fringes. There also had been a great deal of bipartisanship during the drive to win World War II.

Later, Henry had a lot to do connecting universities and the federal government. He helped train “hundreds of rising young federal employees.”

“My bias was instilling a need to understand American government,” he said. “The executives needed a basic understanding how government relates to society.”

The ideal executive, he said, must be able to work with people and have a balanced temperament. He would frequently work with young executives on their writing skills, then help them find good careers.

He read the first dissertation of a candidate who would become the deputy director of the budget.

“I would hope individuals would not be deterred from a career in government by the present negative atmosphere,” Henry said. “It is still possible to do good and satisfying work.”

Henry, who holds an earned doctorate, is professor emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has been recognized by Marquis Who’s Who Top Educators.

After Henry earned his degree at DePauw, he served his country in the Navy during World War II. He was stationed at a base in Northern Idaho, working as an administrative specialist, helping to put people in jobs. He served three and a half years and rose to be a chief petty officer, but said he “never got close to the war.”

After the war, he earned a Master of Arts (1948) and a doctorate of philosophy (1960) from the University of Chicago. In 1950, he became a staff assistant at the Public Administration Clearing House. In 1955, he joined the Brookings Institution as research associate and senior staff member.

From 1964 to 1978, he was professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. In 1978, he joined Virginia Commonwealth University, where he was dean of the School of Community and Public Affairs. He continued to be a guest scholar at the University of Virginia and also was a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Henry also was a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and the former president of the Network of Schools of Public Policy Affairs. He was affiliated with the American Society of Public Administration and Phi Beta Kappa.