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Lewiston’s citizen of the year fights to preserve village life

LEWISTON – Tim Henderson wears many hats in this community and lately he’s favored a straw boater to set off his Amish beard and round tortoiseshell glasses.

Some know him as “Phil Harmonica,” the guy called up to jam with the band at Blue Mondays at the gazebo. Others know him for his heartfelt role as Josiah Tryon, Underground Railroad hero immortalized in the Marble Orchard Ghost Walks each fall. Henderson serves as program coordinator for the Lewiston Council on the Arts (LCA), sponsor of the aforementioned projects, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Henderson also is a playwright, historian, actor, environmentalist and activist whom the Village of Lewiston named its “Citizen of the Year” this spring, when he was honored by the Niagara River Chamber of Commerce.

“It was unexpected – a surprise,” he said. “Someone said they could give me a key to the village but they’d have to change the locks.”

Henderson is also very funny.

He retired four years ago after nearly 30 years as an operator for the Town of Lewiston’s wastewater treatment plant, and lives in his childhood home in the village, with his wife, Rebecca.

He measures his words carefully and rarely raises his voice, but is a persistent defender of the underdog, whether it’s fighting the expansion of toxic landfills or ambitious developments he believes threaten the quiet charm of his community.

Henderson has found some interesting people in his corner. He counts Hollywood actor and noted environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. as a friend, one he’s kept in touch with for more than two decades. They met when Begley accepted an invitation to lend support to a local environmental cause.

Begley is familiar with Lewiston because he attended Stella Niagara Cadet School in 1962-63, while his father, Ed Begley Sr., did stage work in New York City, Begley recently explained by phone from his California home.

“Tim is the real deal,” said Begley. “He fights the good fights and he’s been doing it for a long time and will continue to do so in the future.”

Henderson also has started Instruments for Peace, a foundation which supplies musical instruments to Lewiston-Porter students who cannot afford to rent or purchase them. He started the project in honor of his late son, Ryan, a musician, and it has obtained a half-dozen new instruments with cases. Gently used instruments also may be dropped off at Lewiston Music, where owner Tony Petrocelli has offered to ready them for donation to the foundation.

Henderson recently took some time to sit in the Lewiston Council on the Arts office and ponder his multifaceted life.

You have such love for Lewiston. Were you born and raised here?

I was born in Niagara Falls. My father taught English and drama at Gaskill Junior High School and Niagara Falls High School. We moved to Lewiston in 1953.

I have always loved Lewiston. I had people on my paper route in the 1950s who were in their 90s at the time and they knew a lot of the people we do (portray) in the Marble Orchard. You could say I shook the hand that shook the hand of Josiah Tryon.

It was a great place to grow up. I could spend all day exploring the woods where Artpark is now.

It still is a great place, but I tell everyone to enjoy it while you can because there may be some scary changes coming and I don’t like what I’m hearing.

Are you’re talking about the plaza on Center and Eighth streets proposed by Ellicott Development, which may include chain restaurants and other businesses?

Yes. We have a master plan and a codebook and strip malls fit in on Military Road and Niagara Falls Boulevard, but not in the village and they never will. This is a corner we do not want to turn. There are things worth fighting for, and I think quality of life and a community’s character are things worth fighting for.

You’ve been very active for decades in the fight against landfill expansion in the community. Where does it stand and what role do you currently play?

I’m vice president of Residents for Responsible Government (RRG). Chemical Waste Management (CWM) has run out of space and is capping its last landfill. The lack of trucks we have now could be the new normal, but it still has to go through the legal stage. It might not be decided until late next year. It’s before a DEC (state Department of Environmental Conservation) administrative judge.

I can’t understand what would lead to their approval of a new, 40-acre landfill when the community does not want it and the DEC has said it isn’t needed. It’s been a long haul.

How long have you been involved in environmental issues in the community?

Since the ’80s. We created Residents Organized for Lewiston’s Environment (R.O.L.E.) to fight the truck traffic from Modern and CWM. Then we fought the incinerators at CWM and we stopped them. The University of Buffalo law students, under Nils Olsen, wrote our briefs. CWM called it a David and Goliath situation and said they didn’t know who was David and who was Goliath.

Then the people of Porter got together and we started RRG (in place of R.O.L.E.). Environmental struggles are not for everybody – it can be very tiring. Even though the eventual outcome is very positive for the community, people get tired of hearing all of the negatives, so we just tell it like it is.

But I have always thought, you fight until you win.

And how long have you been volunteering with the Lewiston Council on the Arts?

Close to 25 years. We’ve gone from one event, the ArtFest, and stretched it out. It started at the kitchen table and moved to an office at the Red Brick (School) and then to this building and now we have year-round programming. Early on, Irene (Rykaszewski, executive director) and Eva (Nicklas, artistic director) came up with the idea of year-round programming and we ran with it and worried about the funds later.

Next came the Blue Mondays at the Gazebo and last year we tried bluegrass and it went over so well that this year, the whole month of August will be Bluegrass Mondays at the Gazebo.

And we started with a single play in the cemetery and then it became the Seaway Trail Historical Walk and now it’s our Marble Orchard Ghost Walk in the fall. We’ve had as many as 150 come on a walk at a time. Each year we have a different theme and Eva and I co-write the play.

Will you play Josiah Tryon again this year?

I have mostly played him, but we’ll be bringing in some new characters this year for the 50th anniversary. I haven’t decided who I’ll play.

Someone once said, ‘Lewiston’s history is its future,’ and I tend to agree. There’s a richness here in Lewiston. Having grown up in the village, I was certainly aware of the role the village played in our country’s history. During the Underground Railroad, this is where two races came together in one human race. I’d hate to see these stories slip away.

Are you writing anything else right now?

I am compiling a collection of poems written by my father, John Henderson, in the 1930s. He was a prolific writer. Maybe it’s in my DNA. I found that he had hundreds of poems tucked away in a box in the back of a closet and they are exquisite. I’m calling it, ‘The Long Lost Love Poems of John Henderson.’

You know, he went to Northwestern University and he had a lead in a play there and in the program, one of the stage crew was Charlton Heston. My father (earlier) taught English and drama and finished up as vice principal at LaSalle High School.

So, how did you become ‘Phil Harmonica?’

Jukebox Scales and the Blue Lights were playing Blue Mondays and he brought me up on stage and that was the beginning of my career. We jammed and I loved it and I’ve played with just about every band that’s come through since.

Editor’s Note: Blue Mondays concludes with the Jeremy Keyes Band at 7 p.m. Monday at the Gazebo, corner of Fourth and Center streets, followed by Bluegrass Mondays Aug. 8-29. The 50th annual Lewiston Art Festival is 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Aug. 13-14, along Center Street. Visit ArtCouncil.org for more details.

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.

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