Paul Henkels–Joy, Golf, and a Life Well-Lived

Deal W. Hudson
Published January 19, 2009

The line of people began at the front door of St. Philip Neri Church in Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania, and formed two complete loops around the sanctuary before it came to rest at the open coffin. Many who came to pay their respects stood for several hours before being greeted by the family of Paul Henkels. He had passed away a few days earlier, at the age of 84, after a protracted illness. Paul was a truly good man, one of the best I have ever known.

The line moved slowly. No one was in a hurry – they obviously wanted to pay tribute to a man, and a family, known throughout the nation and abroad for their generosity and kindness. In addition, there were more than a few Henkels to greet: Barbara, his wife of 51 years, along with ten children and their spouses. Many of the 27 grandchildren were scattered about. The presidents of three Catholic colleges were standing in line, including Notre Dame and Ave Maria, along with representatives from over a dozen apostolates coming from as far away as Austria. Cardinal Bevilacqua celebrated the Requiem Mass and Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna sent a letter to be read from the pulpit.

It says a lot about a man that his smile had a childlike innocence until the day he died. Paul’s grin exuded delight in finding the good he always looked for in others. Yet there was nothing naive about the man who spent 60 years building Henkels & McCoy into one of the largest privately held engineering companies in the nation.

I first met Paul when he was 70, but his energy was still that of a young man; it was a quality that would last until he began his struggle with cancer. On a golf trip with two of his sons and me, Paul walked 36 holes a day for four consecutive days without a hint of slowing down. But that was nothing compared to our trip to St. Andrews in 2005.

That winter Paul started having severe back problems connected with some deteriorating discs in his spine. Our trip was a few months away, and he was worried he would not be able to make it. His surgery went well, but the recovery did not, and by the time of the trip he could barely walk.

Paul made the decision to go on the trip nevertheless, if only to watch the rest of us – including his son, Tim – play St. Andrews. Paul had golfed it himself in 1946, just after his World War II service in France ended. He told me he would ride in a cart and “hit a few chips and putts,” if he was able. All of us accepted the fact that Paul would be a spectator and cheerleader for our week in Scotland.

Scotland was cold and rainy when we arrived, but the moment Paul saw the tightly wound greenness of those links by the sea, there was no holding him back. The sky opened up and the wind was blowing as we drove down the road toward theRoyal & Ancient Golf Club that abuts the 1st tee and the 18th green. It took a while for Paul to get from the parking lot to the tee-box, but when he arrived there was no mistaking his determination.

Tim and I had never played the Old Course, but we overcame our nerves and kept our tee-shots on the wide fairway, while Paul hit a perfect drive with a full turn of his ailing back. Tim and I looked at Paul and each other with raised eyebrows, as if to say, “How did he do that?”

Paul played 18 holes at St. Andrews that day, walking through the wind and rain. His caddy did not know until late in the round the story of the man whose bag he shouldered. When we told him, you could see the depth of respect break through the lines on his weathered face. The next time he handed Paul his club it was with an attitude that approached fealty.

You see, the men at St. Andrews understand life and golf, and how the two become inextricably intertwined for men like Paul. His father, Paul once told me, was buried in his plus-fours, so the son came by his love of the game honestly.

We doffed our caps and shook hands after putting out on the 18th green, and then paused to savor the moment. Everyone was smiling, even the usually dour caddies. But Paul’s face was radiant. He had completed his second round at the Old Course, 59 years after the first, on a day when he had expected to ride in a cart without swinging a club.

“Perseverance” was the word used again and again to describe Paul at his funeral Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Philadelphia. That’s true enough, but Paul’s real secret was joy: his joy in life, in his family, his work, his faith, and the game he loved most. Joy lifted him beyond the obstacles that discourage most men, and radiated from him whenever he came across what the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called “the dearest freshness deep down things.”

The way that “freshness” shone on his face – that is what I will always remember about my dear and departed friend.