Written By Caroline Duvall
Jim Henry, the Governor’s current Deputy and Chief of Staff, is passionate about the Tennessee Community. After three attempts to retire from his involvement in local politics, he has agreed to serve as Deputy to the Governor and Chief of Staff, and is ready to make a bigger impact to benefit the generations to come. Henry accepted the position earlier this year, stating it would be “a perfect way to end his career.”
Henry grew up in Madisonville, Tennessee, moving to Kingston at the age of 13. He attended Hiwassee College, studied at the University of Tennessee, then served overseas during the Vietnam War. Once he returned to the States, he followed his father’s involvement in politics and soon became an active city councilman in Kingston. At 28 years old, Henry successfully ran for Mayor of Kingston, remaining in office until 1978.
He was then elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1980, a position that he would hold for the next 12 years. After being elected to the legislature, he was elected Republican Leader in 1980 and Chairman of the Party in 1984, serving in both positions for 2 years from 1984-1986.
During his time as a Tennessee State Representative, Henry and his wife, Pat, raised three children. They soon discovered that their son, John, faced a life of intellectual disability. “Having a child with mental disabilities changes how you see the world.” Henry said. “Pat and I were brought closer to others who faced the same obstacles, and we were brought closer to our faith.” Henry began organizing programs and activities at the Michael Dunn Center, where his wife was the chairmen of the board. The activities mainly centered on building a supportive network to give families with children like John the help that they needed.
The startling lack of support for children who have intellectual disabilities inspired Jim Henry to begin his own company, Omni Visions. As CEO, Henry directed Omni Visions to focus on helping children with intellectual disabilities, providing a network of stability that reduces the risk of abuse within the foster care system.
After working with Omni Visions for 17 years, Henry prepared to retire. He had just completed an intense round of chemotherapy to treat cancer when Governor Haslam invited him to attend a meeting. In that meeting, Henry discovered that the Tennessee Legislature was prepared to act on a petition that he had begun years ago.
The petition was focused on creating a separate legislative branch of Intellectual
& Developmental Disabilities. The Legislature finally agreed to create the Department of Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities (DIDD), and Governor Haslam asked Henry to be the first commissioner. Henry would serve as commissioner for two years before retiring from full-time involvement. Henry told his wife Pat that this would be “the perfect way to end a career.”
With his experience in the legislature, along with his understanding of intellectual disabilities, Henry successfully established DIDD. After serving as commissioner for two years, Henry prepared to step down and retire. But as the DIDD was succeeding, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) was struggling.
Due to a lack of funding, leadership, and priority, the DCS had an abnormally high death rate among children in the Foster Care system. Governor Haslam asked Henry to serve as DCS Commissioner for another two years. “It was such an honor to be asked, I couldn’t turn it down.” Henry said. “I figured I’d work a little bit longer. Once I took a look at it, I realized it’s a great opportunity to make a difference.” Henry had found another perfect way to “end his career.”
As Henry began his work with DCS, the department continued to receive bad press from the local media. Henry invited the news to join him and his staff on a Priority One call. A Priority One call includes an environment where a child or several children live in a home of toxic stress. The environment may include abuse, neglect, a broken family, or a family where one or both parents abuse alcohol, drugs, or are completely absent.
The Priority One call took them to inner city Nashville. “It was an emotional experience for me” Henry remembers, “If it wasn’t for us, these kids wouldn’t have a chance.” After the call, the media began to understand the challenges that DCS faced.
Three years later, Henry had succeeded in completely transforming the way that the public saw child services and care. “We went from one of the worst programs in the country to being the best.” Henry said. He continued his efforts on preventing the factors that cause generational toxic stress, working proactively instead of reactively to remedy years of abuse and neglect.
“The science is finally catching up with it.” Henry said, “the toxic stress for children is permanently damaging. If you live in a house where you’re scared that someone will come and abuse you, mistreat you...that has a lasting impact. That’s why you see poverty and these different characteristics continually repeating themselves.” This type of stress prevents victims from developing mentally, from doing well in school and having a successful future. Solutions do not lie in better education or funding, but in repairing the family unit and providing children with a safe, secure place to grow up.
Henry will continue to find solutions for families who live in poverty and homes where children experience toxic stress. With his years of community service and political experience, Henry knows that lasting and effective change begins with the youngest generation: “It is about creating sustainability, something that the next generation can take and make better.” Henry states. “It’s about educating our youth and giving them the opportunity to do great things. We do not intend to lose the next generation. We have to show people that loving families are the right thing to invest in.”
Jim Henry will continue his political career as Deputy to the Governor and Chief of Staff, pursuing the same level of excellence that has characterized his entire life. After Henry helped DCS succeed, the Governor asked him to postpone his retirement for a third time. Henry agreed, stating with some humor that he really did expect this to be his final position before retirement. Being appointed as Deputy to the Governor and Chief of Staff really would be “a perfect way to end a career.”