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Mel Henderson

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Mel Henderson Obituary
Served students as coach, principal

Mel Henderson, who was an educator, coach and elected official in three of Bergen County's most racially diverse towns, has died in Virginia. He was 74.

The cause was a heart attack, his wife, Sylvia, said.

A three-sport star at Hackensack High School, Mr. Henderson returned there in 1975 after a stint as a Ramapo College assistant dean. In 13 seasons as boys basketball coach, he led the Comets to three Bergen County Jamboree titles.

He stepped down from coaching to focus on his new duties as assistant principal. In 1992 he was hired |as principal of Englewood's Dwight Morrow High School, at a time when the school, with a student body almost entirely black and Hispanic, stood at the center of bitter desegregation battle.

Mr. Henderson enforced stricter behavioral guidelines, toughened the dress code, attacked graffiti and improved communication between students and administration.

But his stay was brief. He resigned after three years, citing a political battle between the Board of Education and city officials for control of the schools.

By then Mr. Henderson himself was an elected official a councilman in neighboring Teaneck.

Mr. Henderson, an African-American, became politically involved after a white Teaneck policeman, Gary Spath, fatally |shot a fleeing black teenager, Phillip Pannell, in 1990. The shooting sparked racial unrest, and Mr. Henderson greatly participated in the resulting community dialogue, recalled former Teaneck Mayor Paul Ostrow.

Mr. Henderson won election to the Teaneck Council in 1992. He was the council's only African-American during his two four-year terms and also served as deputy mayor.

"Mel was very protective of the well-being of students, particularly those in the African-American community, which had, and still has, its greatest presence in Teaneck, Englewood and Hackensack," said Ostrow, who served on the council with Mr. Henderson.

In September 1993, Mr. Henderson was the target of a racially charged incident at a televised council meeting when a man in a gorilla suit delivered bananas and a toy monkey to him. The costumed messenger was hired by Teaneck resident and mortgage company owner Dan Koenigsberg.

"Mel felt angered and hurt, and justifiably so," recalled Ostrow. "It hurt him as a man, as an African-American, and as an elected official."

Days later, in a letter to The Record, Koenigsberg apologized and called the stunt a political statement rather than an act of racial prejudice. He was indicted under the state's anti-bias statute but died in January 1995 while awaiting trial.

Mr. Henderson, whose given name was Edward, moved to Chesapeake, Va., in 2003. He died Oct. 8 and is survived by his wife of 52 years; his children, Edward Henderson of Tampa, Fla., and Sharita Henderson-Tankard of Chesapeake; a sister, Eva Sullivan of Hackensack, and four grandchildren.

Services were in Chesapeake under the direction of Oman Funeral Home & Crematory.

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