Friends, the Minnesota Orchestra has lost a great friend—Lee Henderson died suddenly Thursday morning at age 59. Doug Grow has already published an excellent tribute to Lee on MinnPost, but I wanted to share a few personal thoughts, too.
When I first met him personally in May 2014, he introduced himself as “just a guy,” but the truth was he was a remarkable individual, who showed us all what “just a guy” could achieve.
I first learned of Lee in May 2013. It was at a particularly low point in the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, and there was a creeping sense that we were going to be stuck with nothing but trench warfare for a good long time. But Lee wasn’t having it. He published an editorial in the Star Tribune that called for new thinking to maintain the Orchestra’s finances, but to also retain its world-class artistry. He wrote:
As a lawyer who works in the business world, I understand the need for revenue and expenses to balance. Management’s goal of making sure the orchestra sits on a stable foundation for years to come is important. Yet, I have not heard management express that its goal is to maintain a world-class orchestra.
I would think that the board and management would understand that you cannot cut your way to prosperity. When you have some of the world’s finest musicians and conductors making world-class music, it is not a lack of a quality product that is the problem. You need to look inward — it is management’s responsibility to sell tickets, raise money and balance the budget. Very few organizations cut their way to more success. Great music is not found on a spreadsheet.
In the end, he proposed a five-year, $5 million plan end the dispute, and set the Orchestra up for continued success. At the end of his piece, he asked for concerned community members to contact him him if they would like to support his restructuring plan. Hundreds did so, and within 24 hours they had collectively pledged to provide $350,000 over five years. This in and of itself was remarkable.
Even more remarkable was that through this proposal, and the support it generated, he decisively inserted the community into the thick of things. He was saying that a community member should have a voice in the ongoing dispute, that a community leader could make a strong, well-conceived proposal… and that the community could step up to the plate to make this proposal work.
I firmly believe that Lee’s willingness to take a stand and offer solutions was a significant turning point in the labor dispute, and one that galvanized people from across the community to become involved.
But Lee was just getting started. He was hugely responsible for getting the City of Minneapolis and the state government to take a hard look at what was happening with the Orchestra.
But a true testament to his skills, and his long-range vision, came in May 2014, after the lockout was over. To help speed the organization’s healing, Orchestra Board Member Karen Himle convened a meeting that brought together representatives from across the Orchestra family—staff, musicians, board members, community advocates, and writers like me—to see how we might work more effectively and with greater unity to get the Orchestra running smoothly again. Lee was there. At that meeting he put forward another audacious proposal: he proposed to raise $100,000 to create a challenge grant, and then would ask members of the community to match it. Even more audaciously, he promised to raise that $100,000 by our next meeting.
And within a few days, he had.
As a result of his vision and leadership, the Orchestra successfully completed its CommUNITY Challenge that brought in nearly $300,000 to help the Orchestra get back on his feet. “Just a guy” indeed.
For me, Lee represents the ideal for what an audience advocate—and an engaged community member—should be like. He was dedicated, resourceful, generous, hard-working, and willing to think outside the box. Plus, he was an all-around great guy. He was, quite honestly, an inspiration.
My deepest condolences to his wife Polly and his family. Lee will greatly be missed by many, many people.