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August 3, 2023

Goodbye to a Good Man

We were so blessed to have Ralph in our lives for as long as we did.

I lost my stepfather this week.

The word “stepfather” has a bit of an odd sound to it, as the man I’m describing married my mother when my siblings and I were well into adulthood. And yet it does not do him justice to say merely that my mother lost her husband. He was so much more than that to all of us.

It was a second marriage for Ralph and my mother, both of whom, I daresay, probably doubted that the kind of love and happiness they experienced together would come their way at that stage of their lives. Ralph, 14 years older than my mother, had lost his first wife a few years prior. For her part, my mother had been deeply wounded by a bitter divorce following her 37-year marriage to my father.

It is a credit to Mom that she could bring herself to trust again, and it says so much about Ralph that he inspired that kind of trust.

It was not misplaced. They spent the last almost quarter-century together.

In so many ways, Ralph Henneman’s story is the stuff of the “American dream.” He was born in Chicago in 1927 to a German family whose recent forebears, like so many others, had emigrated from Europe to seek better opportunities in the United States. While Ralph’s family was not impoverished, there were few extravagances available for parents raising four children and sending them to Catholic schools during the Great Depression.

Neither of Ralph’s parents attended college, but he was determined to obtain a college education and become an engineer. In his typical fashion, he studied and worked simultaneously to both pass the entrance exam and save the money he needed to enroll. He was accepted to the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an institution that he would remain devoted to throughout his life. He graduated with a degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering in 1949. After he launched his own engineering firm, his company — which continues to this day — helped construct some of the most impressive buildings on the U of I campus, as well as others throughout the state of Illinois and elsewhere.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man for whom college opened up so many opportunities, Ralph was an unflagging supporter of higher education, and would lecture anyone who would listen on the benefits of it (and the perils of skipping it). When my son opted not to attend college, Ralph said to me, “You tell him I said to get his education. That’s the most important thing to have for success in life.” He took great joy in the fact that I teach at a university, and asked me every time I saw him, “So, are you keeping those students in line?” Ralph had no patience for excuses or incompetence, but he believed in and encouraged the potential of everyone who was willing to give something their best efforts.

His mind never faltered, he read the Wall Street Journal every day without fail, and he was always up to date on news and current events. Our conversations inevitably turned to politics and economics during my visits, and while Ralph enjoyed sharing his opinions, he was equally interested in hearing others’ views, even if they differed, and especially if they were well-informed.

Ralph and my mother were able to enjoy wonderful experiences during their 24 years together, including travel throughout the United States and abroad, but he was a man who appreciated life’s simple pleasures: daily Mass, an early morning walk through the neighborhood, a game of golf (he joked that he only wanted a score equal to his age), a good glass of bourbon after dinner. He took great pride in fixing things around the house (well after he should have been calling someone else to do it; during one visit I found him up on the roof fixing a broken window — he was in his 80s at the time).

He laughed at our bad jokes and crazy childhood stories, and he had a self-deprecating sense of humor. Despite his very successful career, he always saw himself as a working-class kid from Chicago. He worshipped the ground my mother walked on and would do anything for her. He told us every time he saw us how grateful he was for the happiness she brought into his life.

My six siblings and I loved him, not least because we witnessed our mother truly appreciated for her kindness, her many talents, her gentle disposition, her deep love and care for Ralph, her embrace of his children and grandchildren, and her incorporation of his entire family into the fabric of her life. Ralph valued about my mother the things she valued about herself, and that is strong glue in any marriage.

Ralph enjoyed good health for all his 96 years until the brief illness that ultimately claimed his life. It was so uncharacteristic of him to be frail that I think most of us assumed he would bounce back to being, if not quite as robust as he had always been, then at least healthy and independent.

Alas, it was not to be. If there is a grace to the swiftness of his parting, it is that he did not linger, suffer a prolonged decline or lose his faculties — things he would have hated.

We were so blessed to have this man in our lives for as long as we did. I will miss everything about him: his quiet devotion to God, his generous love for his family and friends, his indomitable spirit and work ethic, his gratitude, joie de vivre and no-nonsense attitude toward adversity.

He was a good man, and that is saying so much.

Godspeed, Ralph. Build beautiful things in heaven.


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