Over the past twenty years, it’s been the place where parents wiped tears as they watched their children walk across the stage to collect their diplomas. It’s where teams have been put in the sweat equity at countless sports practices. It’s where people have gathered to remember loved ones and raise money for cancer at Relay for Life. It’s where the Hood River Valley Eagles have experienced both ecstasy and despair after countless wins and losses.
Yesterday, that place, Henderson Community Stadium, experienced a milestone of its own: Oct. 6 marked the 20th anniversary of the night the stadium was dedicated, which was capped by one of the most electric victories at home in the history of the HRVHS football team.
The stadium is named in honor of the extended Henderson family — in particular, the late Dr. J. Warner Henderson, a longtime Hood River dentist and active community member, and his wife, Irene — whose generous donation to the Hood River County School District in 1993 helped make the community’s dream of having a bona fide sports stadium a reality.
The land where Henderson Community Stadium stands today looked very different in the late 1980s. On the west side of the track, a small wooden press box raised up on telephone poles stood amongst wooden bleachers. On the east side, located on the same spot as today’s underutilized and uncovered visitors’ section, were a collection of wooden bleachers that served as the viewing area for HRV fans: roofless and exposed to the elements.
The high school had only been completed less than 20 years earlier, but the athletic facilities already seemed ready for a refresh and an expansion.
“The stadium was something that several of us had had that vision,” recalls Bruce Burton, current HRV assistant football coach and head coach at the time the stadium was constructed. He is also a member of the Henderson family, married to Connie Burton, granddaughter of Warner and Irene. “I had that vision, Glenn Elliott, the athletic director, had that vision, (Hood River Valley Stadium Committee Chair) Maija Yasui got behind it, and was the fundraising arm of it, but it was something that the high school was lacking. It looked like our facilities were incomplete,” he says, adding that then-superintendent Chuck Bugge also had a big hand in the process.
Not only did the facilities look incomplete, but Burton said that prior to the stadium’s completion, watching a game could be a drag for fans, who were exposed to the Pacific Northwest elements.
“When the wind comes, the wind would be in your face, and the sun would be in your eyes — as a fan watching the game, it makes such a better game to have a facility where you can be out of the weather,” he explains. “Obviously… with so many events held there now, it’s turned out really well for the community.”
Fundraising for the stadium began sometime in the mid to late 1980s (reports vary), but as the school suffered from budget problems, and as wallets tightened amidst a worldwide recession, efforts to raise the estimated $145,000 (about $240,000 today) needed for the stadium were slow-going.
“We did a number of fundraisers, we did garage sales combined with St. Mary’s, we raffled a car,” recalls Yasui, who said much of the fundraising was done through the booster club.
By the time 1993 rolled around, Yasui recalled that hope was beginning to fade that the district would ever be able to come up with the money. After several years, the community had been able to raise $72,000, but $20,000 had already been allocated to engineering and architect fees.
“We were almost ready to shelve,” she remembers. “We were like, ‘This is going to take some years to get those type of resources.’ It was not a lucrative time in giving.”
Dr. J. Allan Henderson — son of Warner and Irene — said the Henderson family had heard about the bind the school district was in and discussed amongst themselves what could be done to help. At a school board meeting in September of 1993, it was announced that the Henderson family would be donating $90,000 to the completion of the stadium. At the same meeting, the school district moved to name the stadium after the Henderson family.
“It was a fun thing to do,” Allan Henderson says, “and we enjoyed being involved in it and enjoyed getting it done.”
The donation was made, in small part, due to Bruce Burton’s connection with the football team, but the Henderson family’s focus was on far more than football.
“It wasn’t just about football, it was everything a stadium could do,” Henderson explains. “A proper place and a proper situation for the whole sporting complex to be increased, because our family loved sports.”
Burton added that Allan Henderson wanted to make sure that “community” was added into the stadium’s name to recognize the fact that it was far from just the Henderson family who made the stadium possible.
“That was a thing by Allan; he wanted to be more encompassing and not just about the family,” Burton notes. “I think that was more his doing, that he wanted to represent the whole community. They wanted to make sure it was a community project, not just the Hendersons. That’s what I remember.”
Construction on the stadium began in Aug. 1994, according to News archives, and didn’t meet its original target date of opening in time for the fall 1994 season. Fans were still able to sit in the stands, although they weren’t covered at the time. Yasui wasn’t able to remember specifics about construction delays, but recalled that “we got stalled several times due to handicap access,” referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act that was passed in 1990. According to News archives, questions from contractor SturdiSteel about whether the press box could safely lie on top of the stadium roof may have also created an obstacle to the structure’s timely completion.
The stadium was completed in time for the fall of 1995’s football season, but sadly Warner Henderson could not be there, having passed away a few months after making the donation to the school. Irene passed away in 1981.
“He loved dentistry,” Allan Henderson recalls, adding that he was active in the community with Rotary, the Elks, and dental societies, as well as an accomplished banjo player who put himself through dental school by playing the instrument down at Koberg beach in the 1920s. “He loved to play the banjo and my mom used to love to play the piano… she was a very outgoing and very gracious lady.”
“She was a great golfer and one of the kindest people I’ve ever known,” Burton said of his grandmother-in-law.
Although Warner nor Irene were alive to see the stadium’s completion, plenty of their relatives were in attendance for the dedication on Oct. 6, 1995, and to watch Burton coach the HRV football team to a 43-22 upset over the Central Catholic Rams, who were helmed by none other than Joey Harrington: a future Oregon Ducks standout quarterback who went in the first round of the 2002 NFL draft to the Detroit Lions.
“He got so frustrated in that game, he was throwing the ball so hard to his receivers — it was amazing, you could see what talent he had,” Burton says of Harrington. “He was throwing it so hard, they couldn’t hold onto it. It was a real special night to win a game that, on paper, you had no business winning. Dedicating the stadium on the same night was real special.”
The stadium has been witness to many events, football-related and not, since then, but the novelty of the stadium hasn’t really worn off for some of those who helped foster its creation.
“It’s fun to look up at the bleachers,” Yasui says. “There’s a sense of satisfaction.”
“I think about it,” Allan Henderson says of the process to get the stadium off the ground, “but we’ve always had a real pride in the fact that we have one and were able to help with it. It’s a great feeling.”
For Burton, he probably gets to spend more time than anyone with the stadium. Not only is he there for practices and games, but he lives within sight of the structure, and is constantly reminded of how it got there.
“It was great — when you have a vision and you want to see something happen and be part of seeing it come to evolution with all those great people who helped, it was a great feeling. It felt like you were making something that kids could actually take pride in and the community to take pride in,” he says. “Every time I watch a high school graduation, it makes me feel good that that’s there. Every time I go to a soccer game or a lacrosse game, all those events that go on, the Relay for Life, all the things that go on at that place, it made such a nicer venue for those events. We’re pleased that it happened.”