By Emily Williams
You can call Dr. Ronald E. Henderson, better known as Ron, a lot of things.
You can call him a doctor – an OBGYN to be exact. You can call him an entrepreneur, leading him to found the Southeast’s first stand-alone surgical center. You can call him an advocate, writing a book on how to cope with myasthenia gravis.
But you also can call him a farmer, the first job he ever had.
This month, Henderson released his memoir, “The Tenant Farmer’s Son,” which recounts his life story from his humble beginnings on his family farm in Prattville to his long list of accomplishments serving Birmingham and Alabama through various positions in health care.
“I was born on a 116-acre farm with cotton, cattle and corn, and I helped my father work that land from sun up to sun down from the age of 5 until I started playing football in high school,” Henderson said.
Probably forecasting his son’s future success, Henderson’s father was a bit of a brain, graduating high school with honors before the Great Depression halted any hopes of further education. Hardened by the state of the economy, he raised his family on a tenant farm for five years before he was given the opportunity to buy the land.
“To put the dollars into perspective, after that five years, he was given a 40-year note at 3 percent interest for which he annually – and I mean annually – paid $164. That’s $164 for the entire year,” Henderson said.
In his book, Henderson describes his family’s struggling every year to make that payment, but somehow they did make it, and he is a product of his parents’ will to succeed.
“My grandfather was very social, he loved to talk to people, but he made it through the Great Depression and it showed,” Henderson’s son, William, said. “He always had a shell around him or a rough exterior.”
Work and Dream
“My father instilled in me a strong work ethic,” Ron Henderson said. “My mother instilled in me the idea of opportunity and to dream of something bigger. I remember like it was yesterday her saying to me, ‘I don’t want you to be a farmer. I want you to be a doctor, a lawyer or a preacher.’”
Lawyers didn’t have a very clean reputation at that point in time, and Henderson didn’t fancy himself a preacher, so medicine seemed the most viable option.
When Prattville locals caught wind of Henderson’s plans to attend med school, local businesses gave him work and internships so he could save money to pay for school.
“I have been blessed because of where I came from and the people that have helped me,” he said. “I truly believe that it is with divine intervention that I have accomplished all that I have.”
Once he graduated medical school, Henderson, his wife, Beth, and their first daughter, Rhonda, moved to Gordo, where he spent his residency single-handedly running a medical practice.
“I was working in an 800-square-foot clinic and it was the most incredible learning experience,” he said. “I saw it all, from gunshot wounds to midnight births.”
That small clinic in a small town is where Henderson said he developed an appreciation for treating “the whole patient,” developing long-term relationships and providing continued care to his patients. This was the experience that led him into obstetrics and gynecology.
“By the time I retired I was treating my second generation of patients and even my third generation,” he said.
He spent 38 years practicing, founding the Henderson & Walton Women’s Center at St. Vincent’s Hospital before being sidelined by the effects of myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disease that affects general mobility. Ever an advocate for health, he overcame the illness.
“The most productive habit that you can develop in your life is regular physical activity,” he said. “Just today I exercised for an hour and 15 minutes and there is nothing more beneficial. It energizes you and does amazing things for your mood and elevates your productivity.”
Where many give up, according to Henderson, he used the illness as a platform to help others. He wrote the book “Attacking Myasthenia Gravis: A Key in the Battle Against Autoimmune Diseases.” He also used his medical experience to contribute to the book “The Woman I Am: A Woman’s Guide to Health, Happiness and Success in the 1990s.”
“Every year you need to write your goals down and add to them the things you have to gain in order to achieve each goal,” Henderson said. It’s a piece of advice that his daughter-in-law, Lyn Henderson, said he relays to his grandchildren constantly, along with his “Five F’s:” faith, family, friends, fitness and finance – in that order – for prioritizing your life for success.
Once he recovered, he went right back to work and continued a life driven by health care, and he continues to act as a consultant for UAB and St. Vincent’s.
“He has always instilled in all of his grandchildren a drive to do better,” Lyn Henderson said. “My sister-in-law has twins and he loves to ask them, ‘What’s your goal in life,’ and they are 9 years old. They tell him they’re just trying to get the fish on the hook.”
She went on to say that he continues to ask all of his children and grandchildren the same question, followed by the mantra, “The more often you think about your goals, the more likely you are to accomplish your goals.”
When Ron decided to pen his life story, he said that his original source of motivation was to pass the information on to his descendants – his daughters Rhonda and Ellen, his son, William, and his six grandchildren.
He said his career spent delivering babies and seeing men become fathers was not preparation for his own life as a father, it was the lessons he learned from his own dad and his life that did the job.
As old colleagues and associates filtered into a book signing Henderson recently hosted, each spoke to him about the ways in which he changed their lives, commanding them to do the best they can.
“I am an absolute workaholic and all of my associates know that,” he said. “My mantra is that if you believe you can, you won’t fail. I don’t like to call anybody my employee, I call them associates.”
Henderson said his story is one that proves anyone can be successful if they work hard enough. William Henderson said his father’s devotion to the Golden Rule of treating others the way he would like to be treated is what carries his legacy forward through his family and friends.