When my siblings and I were kids, our family took a lot of road trips. My dad would choose the vacation destination months, if not years, ahead of time. He’d make calls and send for brochures, spend hours sitting at the table with the map spread open before him. He kept long, detailed notes, written in all caps on a legal pad, of the mileages between cities, points of interest at National Parks, his estimated fuel and lodging costs for the trip.
A few weeks ahead of time, he’d come to me with a blank map and a highlighter and tell me to sit down at the table. He’d name the cities we’d visit and the highways we’d travel, and it would be up to me to use my map-reading skills and the trusty index to trace the route.
He had every stop planned.
(You’d better hope you don’t have to use the restroom before a designated stop, or you might find yourself peeing in a casino change bucket in a Denver traffic jam.)
My dad escorted us around the United States more than a dozen summers with barely a hiccup in our travel plans.
Before cell phones existed, I was Siri in the back seat, holding the atlas, announcing the number of miles before our next interstate exit.
Before GPS existed, Dad taught us how to navigate the world. He showed us that proper planning was essential not only on vacation, but in regular life too.
Sometimes, though, despite our plans, we come upon a detour sign. We find ourselves on the side of the road beneath a jack, fixing a flat.
In those times, we rely on our hearts and our guts to get us through. We lick our finger and hold it in the air to test the direction of the wind, and then we ride it forward, trusting not only that we’ll make it to our destination, but that we’ll learn something along the way.
The last few years have held some detours for my dad, but I admire his ability to follow his heart and his gut when he found himself under construction and off his own carefully highlighted path.
I hope you enjoy his story as much as I do.
Richard Henrion’s love for travel was born in the 1950s when his older sister, Sue, drove Rich and his brother, Dave, from their home just outside Detroit to the Straits of Mackinac to watch the building of the five-mile long suspension bridge connecting Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas.
The siblings camped on the south side of the bridge and watched in wonder as steel and concrete were lowered into the deep, clear waters of the Straits.
“I was six years old at the time. My parents had divorced when I was five, and Sue brought us all over the place. She was always up for an adventure.”
“There was only one direction to go for us – north. And when you lived in Detroit metro, ‘Up North’ was Higgins Lake, Tawas City, or Oscoda. I sat with my unfolded map and traced the routes for upcoming excursions.”
Throughout high school, Rich fell deeper in love with the north, with lakes and woods, with his study of maps. Maps meant adventure – something exciting on the horizon. A perfectly-calculated journey.
In the fall of 1968, Rich graduated from high school and enrolled in Northern Michigan University’s teacher education program with hopes of becoming an industrial education instructor.
“I didn’t apply anywhere else. I was going north. I loved the UP (Upper Peninsula) and I loved Lake Superior. Plus NMU had the right-to-try initiative — you had one semester to prove yourself. I had graduated high school with slightly under a 2.0 GPA. I wasn’t dumb, but I sure didn’t apply myself. That first marking period at NMU, I managed a 3.25.”
Rich met his sweetheart, Beth, in a class at NMU. The two dated through college, but to her dismay, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science in industrial education (emphasis in automobile technology), Rich took off for Arizona with a group of college buddies.
“We left the day after Labor Day. We had three vehicles pulling six dirt bikes, chasing dreams. I missed the north and I missed Beth. I was back in Michigan by Thanksgiving.”
In July of 1976, Rich married Beth, accepted a teaching position at the Technical Education Center in Kingsford, and moved to Norway, the small town where he still resides today.
After a wedding weekend in Marquette, Rich packed his Rand McNally road atlas, and he and Beth departed on a five-and-a-half week honeymoon out west. They visited Glacier National Park, the Olympic Peninsula, traveled down the Pacific Coast highway to Oakland, Yosemite, and Los Angeles before cutting over to Phoenix, then north to the Grand Canyon, Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone National Park.
They did all of this in a 1974 GMC truck with a topper, loading the truck during the day, transferring their possessions to a tent in the evening so they could sleep on camp pads in the truck bed.
Rich knew he had a good woman when they completed that excursion—the first of many family adventures.
“I lived to plan the next trip,” Rich said. “It was nothing for me to log 25,000-40,000 miles a year in cars and on motorcycles. Summers were jam-packed. We took 10-20 day family trips all over the country when the kids were young. We went all over the place.
“I enjoyed teaching kids that there was a lot more to the world than the rural U.P. I hauled students to auto competitions in Lower Michigan and showed them around cities like Detroit and Lansing. I was happiest hauling a carload of kids.
“There were a lot of solo trips too, or trips with one or two other guys on motorcycles. I’ve been to Alaska, Hudson Bay, the Continental Divide, the Trans-Labrador Highway. I was a member of the Iron Butt Association — I rode with the Team Strange guys out of Minnesota and the Blackfly Riders out of North Bay, Ontario. We’d ride a thousand miles in 24 hours. It was like a big scavenger hunt.
“I was young and healthy, and could do that kind of stuff. I took great care of myself” He smiles. “I was 6’ 6’, 205 pounds — athletic. An ideal summer day for me was 18 and 18 – golf 18 holes in the morning, and then at four in the afternoon, I’d ride 18 miles on my road bike.
“Then, in my late forties, I got too busy – I taught motorcycle safety classes all summer. In ’86, I became a Rider Coach Trainer. There were more commitments, and my routines started to slip. I slowed down in my fifties, but still enjoyed good health. I remember standing in the living room on the day I turned 63 and thinking, ‘I’m 63 years old, and have no aches or pains.’ Then I got my butt kicked a year later.”
On April 30, 2011, Rich was scheduled to teach a motorcycle safety class, which meant he’d be in the parking lot from 7 am to 5:30 pm on Saturday. As he set up cones that morning, he felt tightness in his chest, shortness of breath, and nausea.
When he told his co-instructor and friend, Bruce, about his symptoms, Bruce told him he’d better head over to the ER right away.
Rich replied, “Well just let me finish helping you pull bikes off the trailer.”
“NO,” Bruce replied. “Go NOW. I’ll take care of this. You go.”
Rich was transported by ambulance from his local hospital to a regional medical center where doctors discovered a ninety percent blockage in the artery colloquially known as the “Widow Maker.”
He was immediately taken into surgery for placement of a stent.
“I thought about Beth, and my kids and grandkids. Gray was two, and Reed was on the way. I thought about all the things I wanted to do yet with my family. And then I thought, “If I get off this table, I’m gonna buy that red Camaro I’ve always wanted.'”
He got off the table.
“When I look back on that day, I shudder to think that if I’d have stayed in class, I could have died right there in the parking lot. I’m incredibly thankful for Bruce. He saved my life.”
Rich recovered quickly from the procedure, and was feeling like himself again a few weeks later.
“I viewed it as a bump in the road. God gave me a nudge to slow down, so I did.
“Kristin got married that fall. I stepped through the door at church with her on my arm. I looked out at the crowd sitting there and thought, I could have missed all this.”
Rich was thankful for his second chance at life. He enjoyed his normal routines of teaching, golfing, motorcycling, fishing, and boating with famly.
Then, in April 2014, while teaching a lesson at school, Rich felt a pop in his groin that almost put him on his knees — his first awareness that something else was wrong in his body.
The hip pain grew worse. After weeks of treatment, Rich’s chiropractor sent him to his family doctor for medical testing. A CAT scan revealed the presence of several bone spurs that could not be fixed without a hip replacement.
“I thought about buying time on the old hip, until I developed excruciating sciatica pain from limping for seven months. I was miserable. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t sleep. I was popping ibuprofen like they were M&Ms.”
Rich’s hip replacement surgery was scheduled for January 16, and was followed by nine weeks of physical therapy.
“I got better every single day. I got stronger. I went back to work on March 27th. My kids gave me a standing ovation when I walked back into my classroom. It meant a lot.
“I was back in go mode. I wasn’t going to get on my hands and knees to set a hoist, but that’s what your experienced seniors are for. I went to South Carolina at Spring Break to visit my son, Mark, and his wife, Cali. On the way home, I told Beth I had made my decision. I was not retiring. I was going back for one more year of teaching – my 40th year.”
But at the end of May, Rich noticed that his surgical incision was red and sensitive to the touch. He had a slight fever, and a new area of pain in his leg. His surgeon ordered an x-ray and joint aspiration. He had the procedure on Monday, and was back in school on Tuesday.
“Before my last group of students left for the summer vacation at 11:45, I gave them a pep talk about being leaders and role models when they returned for Auto II in the fall. Their NATEF binders were stored and ready so they could hit the ground running after break.”
At 1:30, Rich’s phone rang. It was his surgeon.
“Rich, you have a serious hip infection, and I need you here tomorrow to do surgery and replace that hip again. You have no options. Be here tomorrow.”
“It was the such a kick in the gut –” Rich said. “I sat in the office and cried. I’d worked so hard to get back on my feet. I did therapy, I took care of myself, I maintained a positive attitude, and now I was going back to being in pain, back to the walker, to sleeping on my back. Not to mention I’d have to wipe out all my plans for June and July. For years, I prided myself on planning and organization. Hard work equals good results. But sometimes, no matter how hard you work, you have setbacks. And you realize you’re not in complete control after all.
“I came home and went downstairs. Next to my golf clubs, which I’d planned to use the following day, were my cane, walker, and extended toilet, — I moved the golf clubs aside and pulled out the medical supplies again.”
On June 3, Rich went back to Bellin hospital for his second hip surgery. The surgeon replaced two of the three pieces, and cleaned out the infected fluids.
The next evening, Rich lie in his hospital bed weighing his options for the coming school year.
“It was the last day of school. I was in tears, thinking ‘I can’t do this again. I can’t go back to school for another year. What if the infection comes back? How could I leave my students for another 8-10 weeks during the school year? How could I expect John, Randy, and Terry to step up again and fill my shoes while I was gone?’ It was the realization that I needed to retire from the job I’d loved for 39 years.”
“I called my principal, Paul, and told him my plans, and then cried for ten days every time someone mentioned the word retirement. A lot of people are itching to retire – to pull the plug as soon as they’ve put in their years — but I love my job. I love my coworkers. I love my students.
“My son, Mark, called me and said, ‘Dad, I don’t think you could have found a more fulfilling career than the one you chose.’ And he was right. This career had it all — technology, automotive work, shop time, the challenge of working with students and shaping their behavior, using connections in the community with former students to help out present students. It was extremely fulfilling.”
So what’s next for an old auto shop teacher with one stent and a metal hip? For Rich Henrion, there are years of fun and adventure still to be had. There are maps to plot and trips to plan.
“I am a teacher at heart. I have four young grandsons and a fifth grandchild on the way who will be my next group of students.”
“I’m thankful for second chances at life and the opportunity to enjoy retirement with my family and friends.”
Your family and friends are proud of you for knowing when it was time to throw out the old map and write the new one.
If a profitable career is measured by lives touched, you are a rich man.
I’ll never forget the time you walked up to the end of the checkout line at our local grocery store. When the woman in front of you spotted you there, she turned to her grandson and said, “This is Mr. Henrion. He’s the man who saved Daddy.”
Thanks for your commitment to your career, to kids, to people. You were created to teach.
Congratulations on your retirement, Dad. We’re looking forward to spending it with you, too.
Stace-a-roo, and the rest of your family
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