Dr. John Henricksen: Person of the Year 2011


Dr. John Henricksen always knew he wanted to become a dentist, but the man who has practiced for 38 years in Chehalis didn't know how involved he would become in his own community - and an entire world abroad - when he first began his profession.

The 1963 graduate of W.F. West High School in Chehalis didn't originally intend on coming back to the Mint City after he received his doctorate from the University of Washington in 1970. After a tour in the Air Force, where he performed his first dental work and was deployed to Vietnam, he and his wife Jolyn returned to the town he grew up in and promptly built the dental office he still practices at today, at the corner of Market Boulevard and 13th Street.

"Basically I came back because I wanted to be involved in a community I knew something about," Henricksen explained. "I grew up here and made so many connections and friends, and really it was easy to come back and live here."

The Henricksens have four children who are now all grown and spread throughout the country - Erika, 41, lives in Tigard, Ore.; Andrea, 38, lives in Duvall; Chris, 35, has since moved to Orem, Utah; and Dan, 32, is currently in dental school. Henricksen says once he retires - while noting he is the senior practicing dentist in the county - Dan is next in line to take over the family practice, even after surviving a major lung cancer scare and pulling through after a successful surgery.

But for now, Henricksen is doing what he loves and has been doing so for nearly four decades. Even when he does retire, he says, he won't leave - he'll keep volunteering in and around Lewis County.

"I'm not going to leave this community when I retire," Henricksen said. "I'll keep my license current and I'll continue to help out in the community any way I can."

He hasn't necessarily made headlines over the past 365 days, but it's the continued work Henricksen has performed as chair of citizens' flood interest group One Voice, charitable work to help those in need here at home and a continued mission of helping the impoverished overseas that has earned Dr. John Henricksen the title of The Chronicle's 2011 Person of the Year.

Moved by the Flood to Action

Henricksen is a devout member of the Adna ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he says that faith propels him to merge his professional practice with a Biblical mandate of helping his fellow man. Locally, that dedication was evident in the aftermath of the flood of December 2007 that left hundreds of families in Lewis County devastated.

The event had such an impact on Henricksen, he says, that he knew he had to get involved and at least help bring some sense of normalcy after the flood. He helped coordinate relief efforts through his church as LDS members from across the Northwest came to join in relief efforts.

"We had people from everywhere pretty much doing it all, delivering food, ripping up carpet, whatever people needed, you name it," Henricksen said. "It was really through that experience that I realized just how terribly this impacted a whole bunch of people."

Although the event was four years ago this month, Henricksen still has the flood on the forefront of his mind, as he chairs a group known as One Voice, which bills itself as a citizens' watchdog organization calling for a unified solution to consistent flooding in the Chehalis River basin.

But why did a man who lives on a hill outside Chehalis, relatively protected from any flooding, get so involved in an issue that doesn't have any direct impact on his property?

"Seeing people suffering through the flood's aftermath firsthand moved me in a way I can't describe," Henricksen said. "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."

Chehalis attorney J. Vander Stoep, a fellow member of One Voice and former state legislator, says Henricksen's involvement in the group has helped provide a calming influence while retaining a clear message that the group supports a water retention solution in the upper Chehalis River Basin to stem the tide of future floods.

"He saw firsthand how that flood turned lives around and he knew something needed to be done," Vander Stoep said. "Over hundreds of meetings with him, and public forums, I've never seen him raise his voice once or seen him angry, but at the same time you know he means business."

Vander Stoep recalls Henricksen helping guide One Voice to remain centrally focused on what he calls "fact-based analysis," preferring to monitor developments with the Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority through its well-documented twists and turns, taking a back seat to the state-sponsored group while still making the group's stance clear through community meetings and guest commentaries published in The Chronicle.

"He has always really pushed for a solution based on fact rather than emotion, which has been the basis of One Voice through this entire process," Vander Stoep said. "He's a calming influence and he's someone whose presence has been quite needed through this."

‘One of the Most Sincere People I've Ever Met'

Along with his local involvement, his impact overseas has been noticed and even joined by local people wishing to make a difference.

Through his church, Henricksen has been able to network with other medical and dental professionals to travel to foreign countries - at least once per year in the recent past, with a trip to Guatemala soon coming - to perform dental work for those who need it yet cannot afford healthcare. His most notable trips overseas have entailed repeated work in Central America and even China, where Henricksen worked to help open the nation's first dental training school in a 2005 trip.

"I always wanted to help people. It's in my blood because I truly believe it's what we're supposed to do," Henricksen said. "I was always taught that at a young age, and my faith has really reinforced that."

Henricksen hasn't flown solo overseas - in fact, current Lewis County Treasurer and fellow Twin Cities Rotary member Rose Bowman has known Henricksen firsthand since she became involved in the civic organization in the mid-1990s.

Bowman was one of several Lewis County residents who helped bring a bus. Rotary purchased the vehicle as surplus from Twin Transit and took it to Jalisco, Mexico, in 2005 to help bring special-needs students at a school in a town called La Barca a much-needed form of transportation to and from class.

"I remember (Henricksen) was trying to figure out a way to get that bus down there, and I said ‘Let's drive the darn thing and I'll be the one to do it,'" Bowman said. "We gave it to the school and filled it wheelchairs and everything they could use."

Henricksen, who chairs a service committee for Twin Cities Rotary, joined several Rotarians in a separate project to help rebuild a Catholic orphanage with new bathrooms, furniture and even a solar water-heating system.

"He's one of those professional people who grew up here, got his education and came back, and he's sincere about making the community a better place to live," Bowman said. "I know he's been very involved locally and abroad. He's one of the most sincere people I've ever met."

Giving Invaluable Help for Free

One of the lesser-known aspects of Henricksen's work as a dentist is his ability to delve into the world of forensics, having been called upon numerous times in earlier years of his practice to help identify the deceased using dental records.

While DNA technology has been reducing the need for dentists to scrutinize the teeth of skeletal remains to identify bodies, Henricksen's expertise still comes in handy for law enforcement agencies.

Earlier this year, a case surfaced in which the Lewis County Sheriff's Office approached Henricksen and asked him for his help in identifying a mandible that was found off Naugle Road in Mineral that was believed to be that of Mike Riemer, who went missing with his wife Diana in 1985.

With the state crime lab swamped with a number of cases across Washington, the sheriff's office approached Henricksen and asked for his help in identifying the remains.

"We haven't used John that much in the last few years because DNA has become so prominent as a way to ID people," Detective Sgt. Dusty Breen said. "Bruce Kimsey and I took the mandible, we visited him first and basically said, ‘We know you haven't done this in awhile, but we know you can help us out."

Breen said Henricksen jumped at the opportunity, and within a day had positively identified the jaw remains as that of Mike Riemer, in essence closing a case that had gone cold over 26 years.

"He told us he was so excited to be able to do that for us," Breen said. "What he explained (to Detective Bruce Kimsey) and I was that in Vietnam, he became a forensic dentist to identify remains of soldiers, and in the 1980s, when Lewis County became a dumping ground for some bodies, he was consulted a lot by detective division then."

Forensic dentistry, as explained by Breen, essentially entails looking at dental charts and identifying matches between them and the found human remains - such as filled cavities, crowns or missing teeth. In the case of Riemer, Henricksen had done the original dental charting for the case with the State Patrol in 1986. As such, he volunteered to perform the work and helped the Lewis County Sheriff's Office close a case that otherwise could have been drawn out over months, Breen said.

"He's never charged our office for his services; it's been completely voluntary since day one," Breen said. "He basically saved us both time and money, and his work saved us from having to send everything out of state where we could have essentially waited forever."

Not Looking for Credit

Other projects Henricksen has either chaired or help accomplish locally include the creation of Penny Playground at Recreation Park; chairing numerous bond and levy committees for the Chehalis School District, including one that allowed for the construction of Chehalis Middle School on 20th Street which has since been paid off; and various service projects through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Through all his work, he says rather than being the go-getter over the years, he's simply helped when approached, seeing it as his civic duty.

"I don't really sit around thinking about what the community needs. I'm not really an instigator, but I just help when people ask," Henricksen said. "Until my health and finances don't allow it any more, I'm going to keep helping out any way I can."

He refuses to take inventory of the ways he has helped. Through his 38 years of service at not only his dental clinic on the hillside above Market Boulevard in Chehalis, but numerous civic groups and even personal involvement, he still prefers to give others credit and let the community at large enjoy the benefits of each finished project without seeking praise.

"I really don't ever want my name on anything," Henricksen said. "I get great satisfaction just by seeing things get accomplished."


Christopher Brewer: (360) 807-8235