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ASU Professor Ray Henkel remembered

Retired geography professor remembered for commitment to students

Photo of Ray Henkel
June 29, 2017

Ray Henkel, a much-beloved professor of geography at Arizona State University for 29 years, passed away earlier this year on March 11 at age 86.

Henkel taught at ASU from 1966 to 1995, beginning his position as assistant professor at a time when most Phoenix-area teachers were ASU-trained and nearly all geography teachers were ASU graduates. Coming into this setting, Henkel instructed many key courses in regional geography, introducing his students to regions from South America to Africa to the Middle East.

“When I took my first world geography course at ASU in 1968, I didn’t realize that Ray would become my lifelong adviser, mentor and friend throughout my teaching career in geography and physical science,” said Tony Occhiuzzi, an Arizona high school teacher for 40 years and currently on the faculty at Mesa Community College.

Henkel especially focused on courses in Latin America, having done his dissertation research on agriculture in Bolivia.

Teacher and mentor

Before the internet brought new opportunities for distance learning, Henkel focused his energies on extending learning opportunities beyond ASU’s Tempe campus. In his first years at ASU, he taught evening courses for teachers on the west side of Phoenix, driving across town weekly. He established a program to allow teachers to earn a Master of Arts in geography.

By 1980, he invited videographers into his classrooms in Tempe. The live evening broadcasts, available on cable TV and in a downtown Phoenix classroom, were popular with undergraduates, teachers pursuing advanced degrees, and community members. “We hope to make people aware of what is happening elsewhere throughout the world and present some analysis,” Henkel said in a 1995 interview.

While he impacted thousands of students, many of whom became Arizona’s public-school teachers, friends and former students invariably mention Henkel’s personal qualities.

“He was a professor — but in terms of his humane way of dealing with people, he was a quiet beacon. He was full of knowledge, a wise man and completely selfless,” said Klaas Frantz, professor at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, who became close to Henkel while living in Tempe and doing research in Arizona in the 1980s.

Henkel played an important role for graduate students as well as undergraduates; over the course of his career, he guided 26 master's theses.

“When I approached him in 1978 to talk about my intent to do field research in the Amazonian region of Peru, Ray did not bat an eyelash and helped me every step of the way,” said Martha Works, professor emerita of geography at Portland State University. 

“His contacts and familiarity with the region opened doors for me and allowed me to understand the tropical rainforest regions of Peru and Bolivia through the lens of someone with deep insight into the area," she said.

In addition to his interactions with students in academic settings, in his early years Henkel led the geography honor society, Gamma Theta Upsilon, and continued to participate actively in the group throughout his years at ASU. Later, he served as adviser to the Latin American, African and Middle Eastern student associations. He established a summer course that took students into the field to learn data collection hands-on.

Farm to university

Henkel was born on a farm in Oklahoma, attended rural schools and graduated from high school in a class of 15 students. He came to Arizona with his family in 1948, where they worked picking cotton. After a stint in the Army in which he became a commissioned officer in the Army Corps of Engineers, he returned to Arizona and worked as a produce farm manager. He decided to take classes at ASU and earned his bachelor’s degree as a geography major in 1960, earning almost perfect grades while continuing his work managing Badley Produce Company.

Henkel applied for and earned a scholarship to the top-ranked University of Wisconsin geography program, where he earned both a master's degree and a doctorate.

In 1964, he traveled to Bolivia to carry out his dissertation research, which examined the environmental problems of people moving from the highlands to the lowlands. Coca production was just becoming a major activity in the region. This began Henkel’s many years as a consultant on coca and cocaine production for organizations such as the Rand Corporation, U.S. Department of State, and the Office of Technical Assistance for the U.S. Congress, and USAID. During many summers, he worked for agencies in Latin America on cocaine and other agricultural problems in the tropics.

From 1970 to 1972 Henkel took a leave from ASU to be acting chair of the Geography Department at the University of Zambia at Lusaka, Africa.

Returning to ASU, he continued to teach courses with enrollments ranging from 100 to 300. His courses drew students from business, education and engineering in addition to geography.

Ray Henkel Scholarship

Henkel was especially proud of the scholarship established in his name — the first ASU award specifically benefitting geography students. The award is given each year to an outstanding undergraduate geography major. After beginning his television courses, strangers would come up to Henkel and tell him they enjoyed his classes — and he would ask them contribute to the fund that supported the scholarship.

“Henkel had a true commitment to students. He was a very compassionate person, who was willing to help any student who wandered into his office,” said Malcolm Comeaux, emeritus professor and ASU colleague. “He was always positive, never judgmental and never had a bad word to say about anyone.”

Those who wish to honor Henkel’s memory are encouraged to make a donation to the Ray Henkel Scholarship Award either online or with a check made out to “ASU Foundation, c/o Ray Henkel Scholarship (#40002451)”, and mailed to Clay Tenquist, Arizona State University, P.O. Box 6505, Tempe, AZ 85287-6505.

Note: A detailed biography of Henkel appears on the American Association of Geographers’ web site.

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