Everyone has a story. Older folks have a longer story and a farther reaching one, but they are the living bearers of our cultural history. At 90-years-old, Jean Henderson is quiet, independent, and unassuming. When she interacts with younger people, it probably doesn’t cross their mind that she was ever young, or that her story, set during World War 2, may be more culturally significant than theirs. Little do they know.
Jean was a proud wife, mother, and homemaker, but she also played a key role in the facilitation of the nation’s first college war bond Victory Center. In 1942 she was a bubbly over-achieving, senior Home Economics major on the Corvallis campus of Oregon State University. Her stepfather owned “Campus Supermarket,” in the neighborhood.
“The war in Europe seemed like it was on another planet, until Pearl Harbor day,” she said during an interview in her favorite coffee shop, shortly after her milestone birthday. “It was Sunday. I didn’t go to church that day. I was 20 years old, and I was reading the paper and listening to the radio. Everybody’s brains changed. We had never coped with anything like this.”
Jean remembers blackouts, warnings of Japanese balloons at the coast, rationing, and locals heading off to war. Her old high school boyfriend went down with his naval ship, and her childhood friend Roger became a military pilot.
One of her close female friends was the Associated Women’s Student Body President, and Editor of “The Beaver” Yearbook at the start of their senior year. She came up with the idea for a campus Victory Center and recommended Henderson for the Student Executive Director position. This was probably due to Jean’s involvement with the Red Cross and her activist nature. She approached the challenge of developing the center, with her usual optimistic zeal.
Her 1942 Beaver Yearbook is filled with photos of Jean during the big convocation for the center on October 7, 1942 in the Memorial Union Building on campus. Ace fighter pilot Major-General Marion Carl, himself a graduate of the university was there, along with a variety of dignitaries. She remembers standing in the back and taking it all in. A donation of 30 Allied Nation flags by OSU alumnus and former basketball star A.G. Sieberts, can be seen in the background of those photos.
The goal of the Victory Center was to encourage the purchasing of war bonds and war stamps, and to integrate all defense fundraising and support activities on campus. Jean’s first year goal was $75,000 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the school that same year. The center received pledges of $49,000 on the first day, including $15,000 worth of war bonds from the athletic department.
For a year of her young life, Jean Henderson was somewhat of a celebrity in town, despite her humble personality and selfless pursuits. There were photographs with the Governor, radio interviews, brainstorming sessions, scrap-metal drives, and hands-on workshops.
She is most proud of the Red Cross Surgical Dressing Center, which she facilitated. Students made 1,000 bandages a day there. Henderson also supervised numerous donation drives for the soldiers of Camp Adair, an Army base just north of town, operating during the war years. “I was always a good organizer,” she said with a smile.
After graduation, Jean worked as a federal food inspector. She traveled with two other graduates and graded canned food. Ultimately she met a soldier from Camp Adair and followed him to Mississippi, where they were married. She remembers being deeply upset by segregation in the South. “This was totally new to me,” she recalled. When her husband was sent overseas, she settled in California.
During 56 years of married life, Jean did charity work for wayward boys, volunteered at the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, organized charity drives for polio, studied sculpting and welding, played piano, and designed furniture.
To this day she is in near perfect health, maintains a beautiful home, drives a car, and is a familiar face around her new hometown in suburban Southern California. She has two daughters and two grandchildren.
Jean laments the general lack of awareness in society now. “I don’t think they know what reality is today. Our day was a crazy time. There was nothing normal about it, but everyone did what they could,” she concluded.