Tribute to Karla Henderson, Ph.D.

May 1, 2014, Department, by Deb Bialeschki, Ph.D.

The field of parks and recreation honors the career of contributions that Karla Henderson, Ph.D., has given the field. After more than 35 years as a researcher and faculty member in parks, recreation and leisure studies, Dr. Karla Henderson is ready to start writing the next chapter in her life as a professor emeritus. She will retire from North Carolina State University at the end of the 2014 spring semester, but as she has assured all of her colleagues, “I am only retiring from the university job — I will never retire from the profession!” That statement says a lot about Henderson and her commitment to parks and recreation. Since her earliest days as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota and as a junior faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Texas Women’s University, she has focused on understanding and translating the importance of recreation and leisure experiences for all people. 

Early on, Henderson tackled difficult, unexplored questions around women’s leisure, the professional challenges to women employed in recreation and leisure services, and issues of social justice in recreation. When the consummate professional’s academic, Doug Sessoms, recruited Henderson to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, those 17 years were, in her words, the “golden years.” She built her career at UNC-CH on philosophies and practices learned from mentors like Sessoms, John Schultz, Caroline Weiss and Leo McAvoy, yet always honing and constructing them with what she learned from her own work. She was tenured and promoted to professor and served as department chair. During those Carolina years, she taught dozens of courses, influenced literally thousands of students, and contributed to her industry through her writing and service to local, state, national and international recreation associations. When the department at UNC-CH was dissolved, Henderson was quickly invited to North Carolina State University, where she has provided guidance to many NCSU graduate students and developed a strong research agenda around physical activity through recreation experiences and accessible parks.  

 In her unassuming way, Henderson has added to the professional body of knowledge with more than 200 articles, more than a dozen books, hundreds of presentations and workshops, and keynotes given in dozens of countries on every continent except Antarctica. She has been honored with numerous professional awards for scholarship and distinguished service, including recognitions from NRPA, the American Camp Association, World Leisure, International Camping Fellowship, the Academy of Leisure Sciences and many other accolades. She was most recently honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from North Carolina State University for her contributions to the field of parks, recreation and leisure. These recognitions are tributes to Henderson as one of the most influential scholars of our time who has pioneered research from a feminist perspective, advocated for qualitative inquiry, and raised awareness around the need for social and environmental justice.

As people get to know Henderson, they are struck by the fact that she “walks her talk.” She has an avid passion for the outdoors, so it is not unusual to hear her talk about her daily runs, backpacking adventures, bicycling trips, hikes, golfing, snowshoeing, canoe trips or even the occasional skydive. She is always ready for a travel adventure, whether to the remote wilderness of Montana, a trek in Nepal, a safari in Africa or a cultural visit to Machu Picchu. She loves playing in the community band, volunteers at local events and is always willing to help out anytime there is a need. It quickly becomes evident that her passion for recreation and leisure is woven into her core that blends into all aspects of her life. 

So, we all owe Henderson a “thank you” — whether we have sat in on one of her courses, read one of her articles or books, worked on a project with her, or benefited from her work with a professional association, we are each a little better because of her influence. While she may no longer go into the office every day, I have a feeling that she will continue to find ways to challenge us individually as well as influence the growth of our profession.

Deb Bialeschki, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus at UNC-Chapel Hill and Director of Research for the American Camp Association.