Widow is thankful to "have had 22 wonderful uears" with her husband
Two days after moving to the Carson Valley to help with a long-time friend’s experimental jet company, Stevie Henderson and her husband Joe had the shock of their lives.
“We came here on the 28th of December, 1994, to help our friend Mike Van Wagenen with the business,” Stevie recalled. “Two days later, on Dec. 30, he was killed in a plane crash. Joe was flying the chase plane at the time.”
The fiery crash of the experimental Peregrine BD-10 was big news in the Valley. It had malfunctioned and crashed 1/4-mile south of Kimmerling Road in the Gardnerville Ranchos area.
For Joe and Stevie Henderson, recruited by Van Wagenen, who was a fellow United States Air Force officer, an immediate question arose. “What do we do now?”
Van Wagenen had been an experienced pilot with 16,000 hours of fly time. He had been through Top Gun training and was the founder of Fox Aircraft in 1988. It was through Fox Aircraft that Van Wagenen was able to entice Joe and Stevie to relocate from Panama City, Fla., to Carson Valley.
Both Joe and Stevie had recently retired from the Air Force and sold a favorite home and successful business in Florida to move here on the basis of Van Wagenen’s request.
Stevie was just starting to unpack the boxes in their new home when she heard about the crash. An immediate investigation began and Joe became a major participant in the investigation, largely due to his flying expertise and associative proximity to Van Wagenen and the experimental jet company.
Through all the turmoil and stress of moving across the country and finding themselves in such a shocking situation, Stevie said she always felt their place was here.
“I believe God sends people to you, and I believe we were supposed to be here,” she said.
When the investigation of Van Wagenen’s fatal crash came to an end, a design flaw was pinpointed as the cause of the crash. The fatal flaw was redesigned and the testing went on for those involved in the experimental jets, “baby jets,” as some called them. Test flights continued and Joe Henderson was one of the top test pilots as well as a major player in Fox Aircraft Corp.
On Aug. 4, 1995, seven months after Van Wagenen’s fatal crash, Joe Henderson took plane number two up for routine tests. While flying over Little Mondeaux west of Jacks Valley Road, his plane malfunctioned and crashed. Joe Henderson died that morning, leaving Stevie, his wife of 22 years, a widow.
“I was on my way to work a garage sale at our church, so they couldn’t get hold of me immediately,” she said.
After hearing the news, Stevie had to ask herself, for the second time in less than a year, “What do I do now?”
Though many thought she might have wanted to leave Nevada, Henderson said she found this was ultimately the best place for her to be.
“A lot of people thought I’d leave,” she said. “But, I think God was watching out for me. I don’t know if I would have survived if I’d still been in Florida. I had great friends there, but the support I had here was tremendous. In a way, I think it has been easier here since we didn’t have years and years of memories here.”
Henderson is a woman of spirit as well as deeply-rooted spirituality. She was born in Clairton, Pa., the oldest of four children and a self-described “type A” personality. After graduating from high school, she attended the University of Pittsburgh, studying Russian language and literature.
Following college graduation, she enlisted in the USAF in 1969, at a time when the military was first trying to appeal to women. She immediately went on a summer study trip to Russia where she recalls listening to the momentous U.S. moon landing on the radio.
“They were very gracious to us and brought in a videotape of the landing for us to watch,” she said.
Henderson attended officers’ training school and intelligence school in Denver and now marvels at how she got through all that as a young woman.
Later, she met Joe Henderson on a tour of Thailand and she also met Mike Van Wagenen at that time.
“We met at ‘new guy’ school in Thailand,” she said. “We became friends as well as respected professionals.”
Years later, while stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Stevie and Joe were married on May 3, 1975. They led a happy, married life as USAF officers, serving their country and seeing the world together.
“I know we were lucky to have found each other and to have had 22 years together,” she said. “I always remind myself of that.”
After their last station at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Fla., retirement found them eventually answering Mike Van Wagenen’s call and returning to Nevada.
“We started and ended our married life in Nevada, although we spent very few years here,” she said. “We always wanted to return to the West.”
Henderson said she has kept her sanity through her strong faith in God. Living in the Carson Valley, surrounded by mountains, has proved to be a source of comfort to her.
“Some people say they find God in the oceans, but I feel Him in the mountains more,” she said. “I have always enjoyed hiking in the mountains, and find much comfort there.”
She has become a familiar face to other Valley residents facing life-altering experiences through her work as a hospice volunteer with the Hospice of the Sierra Sage. There, she has been instrumental in helping with the day-to-day struggles of terminal patients and additionally has helped in many fund-raising efforts.
Henderson has also become an active member of the Carson Valley United Methodist Church, where last week she performed in several Easter dramas. This fall she will begin training people for the Stephen Ministry – an outreach program to help others who may be going through difficult times.
Henderson is an active member of the volunteer service group, Kiwanis, and is the co-chair of the club’s first arts and craft fair to be held in August. She currently represents Kiwanis at this year’s Leadership Douglas County, sponsored by the Carson Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Authority.
In the short time she has been here, Stevie Henderson has experienced life’s extremes. In spite of it – perhaps because of it – she has become an active member of the community and an inspiration to those who meet her.
“You can grow or you can die through tragedy,” she said. “This was one of the worst things that could have ever happened to me, but nobody did it on purpose. Joe’s death put things in perspective for me and gave me more faith in the afterlife. I’m not afraid of death anymore. Also, I know we must appreciate each other and not take our loved ones for granted.”
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