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In Memoriam: Pat Henderson
Greg Kwasnik

It is with great sadness that we share news of the passing of Pat Henderson on December 17, 2023. We had the good fortune to interview Pat this summer for a story that will run in the upcoming edition of Holderness School Today. What follows is the text of the story, as it will run in the magazine. We’re so grateful to have had the chance to speak with Pat, to get to know her, and to better understand the outsized impact she and her husband Don had on Holderness School during their 37-year tenure here. 

You can read Pat's full obituary here.


In the fall of 2023, for the first time in Holderness School’s 144-year history, female students outnumbered their male counterparts, 51 percent to 49 percent. To the woman who had done so much to mentor the school’s first female students some 50 years ago, it was a piece of unexpected – and welcome – news.
“Oh, that is just wonderful,” says Pat Henderson, a tack-sharp 97-year-old who, in a phone interview this summer from her home in Massachusetts, breezily recounted Holderness memories that stretched back some 72 years. “I didn’t think I would see that in my lifetime.”
To generations of Holderness students – both girls and boys - Pat and her husband Don were iconic figures on campus. The couple first arrived at Holderness in the fall of 1951 when Don took a job teaching history and coaching the school’s fledgling snow sports program. Over the next 37 years, Pat and Don would go on to become the school’s preeminent power couple – Don by creating a snow sports juggernaut that would produce nine Olympians, and Pat by working in the Admissions Office, becoming the school’s first archivist, and serving as a beloved mother figure to countless students.
And, in the early 1970’s, she would become the advisor to the school’s first intrepid female day students. How did she find herself in that role?
“I have no idea. I never applied for it – it was a non-existent job,” Pat says with a wry chuckle. “I’m tall and formidable looking. Maybe they thought my scowl would keep these girls in line.”
In reality, Pat says, those trailblazing girls lived up to the high standards they set for themselves. “They were a great, experimental, open-minded, lively bunch of girls,” Pat says. “They knew that they were on trial, and that they had better behave themselves if they wanted girls to have a future at all at Holderness, which they did. They were delightful, that's all. Strong, strong individuals. They had to be able to buck the boy system.”
If anyone was capable of bucking that system, it was Pat. After all, she grew up in northern New Jersey surrounded by five brothers. “I just always liked boys. I played with boys - there were never any girls to play with around my neighborhood,” Pat says. “And there were nine boys within just a few blocks. So, I grew up with a positive attitude about the male sex.”
She also came to an early appreciation for coeducation. After spending an unhappy first year at Bennington College, then an all-girls school, Pat’s advisor suggested she look into coed Middlebury College. In short order, and without telling her advisor, she hitchhiked with a friend to Middlebury, sat for an interview, and was admitted. Transferring to Middlebury proved to be a life changing decision for Pat, because it’s where she met Don - a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division attending the school on the GI Bill. He was an intellectually curious, bold, persistent boy who grew up skiing in Berlin, New Hampshire. His nickname, Pat recalls, was Hammer. “He was a fanatic about skiing. He was a fanatic about history,” Pat says. “He was a fanatic about getting outdoors every day. He was a lively lad, good fun to be married to.”
When the couple arrived at Holderness in 1951, they found a small but welcoming community with just over 70 students and 12 faculty. They planned to stay for a year or two before moving out West to ski, but ended up staying for quite a bit longer. In the end, the Hendersons would be fixtures on campus until their retirement in 1987. “After two years, we decided we liked it so well we couldn't barely leave at all,” Pat says. “36 years later was when we finally were able to break the news.”
During their four decades at Holderness, Pat and Don would do much to transform Holderness into the school it is today. Don effectively modernized the teaching of history at the school and built the ski team into a powerhouse that rivaled the best schools in the country. At the same time, Pat became an indispensable figure in the life of the school and its students. “Pat was this wonderful bookend to Don, and to the women of this school, because she was so smart and so erudite – but also so interested,” says Tim Scott ’73, who lived in the Hendersons’ home on the Hill for two years and still keeps in touch with Pat. “She was interested in kids, interested in people, interested in learning. She was my other mother.”
In countless ways, Pat and Don became like surrogate parents to the students of Holderness. They would remember all the students’ names – even at the beginning of the school year – and recall small details about their lives that made them feel seen and special. “I remember that kind of attention, even though I know that they gave everyone attention equally,” Tim remembers. “They made you feel special, which is a real gift, I think, for anybody to be able to pull that off and make you feel that you matter.” They also challenged the students to live up to a high standard, both inside and outside of the classroom. “You wanted to meet their standard – and it wasn't manipulative,” Tim says. “It was just ‘You can do better,’ and you believed them.”
In 2015, Tim compiled “A Living Tribute to Don and Pat Henderson,” a collection overflowing with remembrances from former Holderness students and faculty. Former English teacher and Assistant Head Jay Stroud, who would later go on to become Head of Tabor Academy, wrote of the outsized role Pat played as Assistant Director of Admissions. “Every once in a while, when people were disaffected from Holderness for one reason or another, they were critical of Pat—NOT because she wasn't good at her job but because she was so wonderful at it,” Stroud wrote. “I remember one family who left the school remarking to me, ‘We thought everybody at Holderness would be like Mrs. Henderson.’—as though her lovely, humane and ever-thoughtful approach to kids and families was some kind of sham. But, I always thought Pat made Holderness seem ideal—because she embodied that quality. For me the kind way she treated people was a goal to be achieved.”

Pat’s kind, steady influence was likely key to the success of the school’s first female students. As advisor to the day girls in the early 1970s, she helped bridge the gap between the Holderness School for Boys and the coed Holderness School of today. With Pat’s influence and mentorship, the day girls soon had their own trailer behind Livermore, a private space where they could change, shower, and commiserate. Named ‘Hen House’ by one of the girls as an ironic nod to Pat, it was the first true female space in the all-male school. “Pat Henderson was tireless in her efforts to be supportive of the early coeds. She understood the need for a private place of our own on campus, and the "Hen House" quickly materialized,” Kim Speckman ’76 wrote in her own tribute to the Hendersons. “Pat's quiet manner, sage advice, and her readiness to be there when things inevitably went awry were invaluable.”

Today, the spot behind Livermore where the girls’ trailer sat is a parking lot, and the school’s female students have their own dorms, locker rooms, and sports teams. Pat, who spent decades in happy retirement with Don at their home in Fairlee, Vermont, currently lives with her daughter Nancy Henderson ’72 in Massachusetts. Don passed away in 2018 at the age of 94.
While Pat and her husband left Holderness some 36 years ago – almost exactly the length of their time at the school – their presence is still felt on campus.  The new Henderson Dorm was dedicated to their family in the fall of 2019; the Henderson-Brewer-van Otterloo Chair Year gives faculty the opportunity to spend a year off campus learning or exploring a passion; and every year on Prize Day the Pat and Don Henderson Award is given to a senior who has exhibited leadership and “given of themselves most freely and generously to the welfare of the community.”

It’s a fitting tribute to a couple who gave so much of themselves to Holderness.
“I just know that I really loved the school – not just liked – but loved it. In those days when it was so small, you literally knew everybody. And parents and aunts and uncles and probably cousins too,” Pat said. “From the very start, it just seemed like the place for us.”

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