Brian Mittge: Final thanks to a dynamic dentist and a dedicated community leader


Thousands of people have brighter smiles today because of Dr. John Henricksen, and not just because he was a fine dentist in Chehalis for decades. 

He certainly was a caring and skilled dentist, but Henrickson, who died last week, was so much more. 

In fact, The Chronicle named him their Person of the Year in 2011 in honor of his many contributions to our community. He was a man of good humor, dedication and servant-leadership. 

I first got to know him when I was a child. My mother, Margo, worked as a dental hygienist for Henricksen in the office he helped build, overlooking the 13th and Market area of south Chehalis. 

After seeing him at my mom’s office, I thought it was pretty cool when he joined the W.F. West High School’s “Washington to Washington” band trip in 1993 as a chaperone. Now 30 years later, as a sometimes band chaperone myself, I have a much deeper appreciation for his willingness to oversee a hundred-plus teenagers on a cross-country trip. That takes a lot of confidence and generosity. 

At some point I heard him tell the story of how, as a child growing up in Chehalis, he watched as they built W.F. West High School from scratch in the early 1950s. He rode his bicycle up and down the empty hallways when the workers were gone for the day. 

And so, when they renovated W.F. West in the middle of my high school career, I followed his lead and rode my own bicycle up and down the empty hallways one summer, 40 years after he had done the same thing. I always thought that was pretty cool, too.

And I didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out I was following his lead once again when I volunteered (along with hundreds or thousands of other Twin Cities folks) to help build Penny Playground in 1993. 

Henricksen was the father of that effort, having brought back the idea of a community-built wooden playground structure after seeing one on a trip to Tennessee. He presented the concept to the Chehalis Rotary (which he had joined in 1974) and helped lead the project to a successful completion. 

And a few years ago, when that beloved original wooden play structure was showing serious signs of decay, Henricksen again stepped forward through Rotary to help lead the effort to replace it with a new Penny Playground. I admired his wisdom and willingness to tear down something he had helped us all build because he knew it could and should be replaced with something better. He wouldn’t let us get caught up in nostalgia. He saw the future and guided us. That’s visionary leadership. 

He showed the same spirit when he took the lead after the devastating 2007 floods to push us toward a comprehensive flooding solution through his service as chairman of One Voice.

“Seeing people suffering through the flood's aftermath firsthand moved me in a way I can't describe," Henricksen told The Chronicle in 2011. "I was emotionally overcome, and I remember expressing that we have got to do something, get some movers and shakers together and make something happen to where this doesn't happen again."

He was a calming and rational voice in debates on a subject that could often become heated. For him, practicality and pragmatic problem-solving was key, along with kindness and good humor. 

Henricksen retired from dental practice in 2014 and had the satisfaction of seeing his son, Dan, take over the practice. Dan is still my dentist, and he’s a good one. It’s a family tradition.

The elder Henricksen, or “Doc,” as our family has always called him, greatly enjoyed retirement. He and his wife, Jolyn, took trips and stayed involved in family, church and community. He served as Rotary president and led the Chehalis group’s 100th anniversary celebration. Doc was as active as ever when he died last week of a heart attack at age 79 in the middle of a project at his home on Newaukum Hill. 

Many of us hope that when our time comes, we “die with our boots on” as hard workers. It’s a great goal. An even bigger and better aspiration, and one that can be Doc’s final act of leadership in guiding us forward, is to follow him in living lives that aim to be as productive, as genial and with so many partnerships for improving our community. 

Dr. John Henricksen’s legacy of healthy smiles and mutual shared effort to build up the good life in our small town will live on for generations. 

Thanks for all of it, Doc. May we all work as hard as you did and have as much fun along the way. 

Brian Mittge has covered life in the greater Lewis County area for The Chronicle since 2000. He can be reached at