While there are some people who make their way into your life and out in a short period of time, there are others to whom you come so close to meeting and yet miss by just enough to never connect. And yet, when you hear about them, you mourn that never-known opportunity. Carl Henn is one of those people for me.
Carl was a long-time Rockville community activist. According to his friends and family, he loved biking, rode all over town, and had a palpable dislike for driving. He believed in the importance of community-based food, and the power of eating things you’ve grown with your own two hands. Embracing the philosophy of treading lightly on the planet, he minimized his personal impact.
Most importantly, he didn’t keep these opinions to himself. He tirelessly advocated for better bicycle infrastructure in Rockville, leading to the establishment of our bicycle beltway, the Millennium Trail. He persuaded the city to reduce garbage collection down from two days to one, reducing the refuse discarded and the fuel needed to pick it up. Even though the city already had a community garden, he thought more people should have ready access, and so convinced the city to set up three more. And those were only the most impressive of the changes that occurred as a result of his 20 years of work to make Rockville more socially and environmentally sustainable.
Tragically, it was while celebrating these changes that he passed away last summer. The King Farm Community Garden was having a picnic when an intensely violent storm passed through. I remember the storm vividly and being taken aback by how quickly it escalated. I can’t imagine being outside with no immediate place to go. Sadly, lighting hit the tree under which Carl sought cover and damaged his heart beyond recovery.
I first heard about Carl only a month or two after his death, when I applied to be on the Rockville Environmental Committee. Despite my strong background, I was totally outclassed by another applicant, a woman who had previously served on the Committee and had decades of professional experience in environmental public participation. At first, I was incredibly disappointed. But then, she told me about Carl and how his death motivated her to once again become involved in the community. As she described how important this was to her, I became not only happy that she’d get the position, but in awe of the person who inspired this level of action.
Since then, as a member of the Rockville Bicycle Advisory Committee, I have heard much more about Carl. Just as I started, we voted to rename the Millennium Trail after him and began planning the Carl Henn Memorial Ride.
After many months of planning, we finally held the Memorial Ride this past Saturday. Despite the witheringly hot weather, about 40 cyclists gathered at Rockville City Hall. As both photographer and volunteer, I acted as a sweep rider, helping ensure everyone stayed together. Although everyone had cue sheets, this was meant to be a community ride, where no one was left behind and no one felt excluded. Thanks to our leaders and all who came with good attitudes, the ride was slow enough for everyone to enjoy both the pedaling and conversation.
The 11-mile route winded through the city, using nearly all of our bicycle infrastructure, including a major bridge over I-270 and large parts of the Millennium Trail. It passed by the four community gardens, and stopped for a break at the one where he was struck.
Despite the solemn circumstances, it was amazing how happy everyone was. There was no question that everyone remembered Carl, but commonly understood that the best way to celebrate his life was by enjoying fellow neighbors’ company. His wife, Carol, was even at the break, donating his bicycle to local charity Bikes for the World.
Overall, it was a beautiful, moving, joyful event. I had a bit of difficulty at one point – even as sweep, I managed to misplace the group – but it didn’t matter. What was important was the effect Carl had on the community, not only in his infrastructural legacy, but the way he inspired people to take action themselves. That trait more than anything else is what makes me wish I had been able to meet him – the world always needs more people like that. I hope that I can follow in his footsteps and be one of those people.