Richard’s Almanac: Henrietta looks back

REPORTER FILE PHOTO |  Henrietta Roberts, hard at work at her desk at the Senior Activity Center.
REPORTER FILE PHOTO | Henrietta Roberts, hard at work at her desk at the Senior Activity Center.

I learned the other day that Henrietta Roberts, long-time coordinator of Senior Services, has announced her intention to retire in a letter to Supervisor Jim Dougherty. Henrietta said that she would like to leave “whenever a replacement is found.”

I met with Henrietta last Friday in her office at the Senior Activity Center. She talked about what led her to work with Island seniors for the past 21 years.
Henrietta is a New Yorker who lived in Michigan when her husband worked for General Motors. When he retired, they came back to New York City, where she worked in human resources. Through her work in the city, she met many celebrities including Barbara Streisand and the Beatles.

While they lived in the city, they spent a great deal of time at their summer house on the Island where they now live year-round.

Henrietta credits former Islander and retired social worker, Clara Barksdale, with first recognizing the needs of the elderly on the Island. With the assistance of Gert Bourne, she went to the Town Board and got the ball rolling to create what is now the Senior Citizens Affairs Council.

She met Clara in 1993. Because of Henrietta’s background in human resources, Clara asked her to help  out. Henrietta took over after Clara left the Island for Arizona because of her ailing husband.

“Although few people remember her name, we owe the benefits of all of our senior services to this remarkable woman,” Henrietta said.

With the help of her assistant Roni Siller, Henrietta coordinates many different activities for seniors including yoga, mah-jongg, poker, volunteer drivers and the training of aides by Lois Charls. Both women are also involved in the Silver Circle Social Club, which meets on Wednesdays at the center.

“Wednesdays are fun days,” Henrietta explained. She remembered a particularly fun time when everyone brought in and shared their wedding pictures.

Henrietta impressed me with her commitment beyond obligation to her work.

She’s been called in the middle of the night just to sit with and hold a dying senior’s hand.

She related a story of a 95-year-old woman who suffered from the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s who had no family but was devoted to her cat, Simon.

“She called me and said that Simon was sick and could barely move,”

Henrietta said. She took the cat to the vet but he did not make it. She  decided not to tell her owner. Whenever the woman called, Henrietta would say, “Simon is getting better.”

But the woman wouldn’t let it go. “So one day while I was driving by the dump, I saw this cat that looked just like Simon. He jumped right into my car,” Henrietta remembered, adding that when she brought the new cat over, he jumped in the woman’s lap.

“Oh, thank you for bringing Simon back,” she happily exclaimed.

Henrietta suffered a tragic loss a little over a year ago when her son David died of cancer. “I visit his grave every day,” she said. Her husband and children had a bench placed there.

“It’s very close to the grave of my good friend, Mimi Brennan,” Henrietta noted.

She told me that Mimi had left a plastic flower at the Senior Center that she decided to place on her grave. It was one of those motion-activated flowers that moved and played music when the wind blew.

“On one of my daily visits to David, late in the afternoon by myself, I heard music. I was all alone, it was almost dark and I heard music,” she said.

She realized that it was Mimi’s flower, moving in the breeze and playing music.
When asked what her post-retirement plans were, she said that she’d like to write. “That, and keep out of my husband’s hair.”