Once protected twice inspired
Published: Monday, March 26, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 11:03
Years melted away instantly when Wallace “Tony” Henderson saw Professor Richard Seniff enter the criminal justice classroom with his casual gait and his calm, self-assured presence. Seniff had entered Henderson’s life during a traffic stop where Henderson, just a young boy then, and his older brother were returning from a visit to Indiana State University.
Henderson doesn’t remember his brother speeding and all of the lights worked fine on the car. Yet a local officer not in uniform had pulled them over just south of South Bend. He was intimidating and rude; scaring Henderson as he listened to the officer using the “N” word repeatedly and watching him handcuff his older brother. Henderson remembers wondering what was going to happen to him when this officer took his brother away, and was told to shut up as he tried to ask the officer why his brother was being arrested.
Then a second set of police lights appeared behind them and a man approached in a sheriff’s uniform. Asking the officer what was going on; he also asked Henderson who was now in tears if he was okay. Henderson told Seniff he was scared because the officer was mean to him and his brother.
The local officer told Seniff that he could handle the situation and that his assistance wasn’t needed. Not backing down, Seniff asked why the stop was necessary. The officer responded that he didn’t need to be concerned. After taking another look at Henderson, Seniff told him that he’d be taking over the stop. The local officer tried to talk Seniff out of it, but he didn’t budge. Seniff firmly sent the other officer away.
As Seniff un-cuffed Henderson’s brother and let him get back into the car, he gave them an apology and released them. Henderson remembers thinking at that time that not all the stories he had heard about police officers could be true as he had just met an extremely nice one.
Now, many years later, here at IUSB, Seniff was again standing before him but this time as his professor. Henderson approached Seniff and asked if he remembered him. Seniff didn’t, which at first made Henderson sad because this man had made such a profound impact on him and his life from that one day, even being a key influence to Henderson taking up a career path in criminal justice. Yet Henderson realized at that moment that it was never about him but about Seniff being a good person.
“As a black man taught to hate cops and always be careful of white people, I take my hat off to the only white man that has helped reshape my thoughts and beliefs,” Henderson says. “Because of my encounter with Richard Seniff, I learned that I needed to not judge all white people by the stereotypes that were given to me by society as a whole. I learned to be nice to all persons regardless of race or skin color, and give them a chance to earn my respect equally.”
Henderson talked with numerous students, including his wife who was also taking criminal justice classes with Seniff, and found that he was not alone in his feelings toward Seniff.
During the 2010-2011 school year, he organized a ceremony honoring Richard Seniff for his contribution to the Criminal Justice Department and to the students as well. Fox 28 News reported the story and Seniff was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation which now hangs in his office in Weikamp Hall.
If you ask Seniff about his life and his experiences, he will give you a smile filled with strength and compassion and he will take the time to talk with you. He is a man who has lived his entire life by making a true difference to others. Ask his students and the common theme you will hear is how much he is appreciated and sought after as a professor. As Henderson says, “His contributions show him to be a man of principal, integrity and fair play.”
Seniff says, “I have had Emerson’s quote posted where I can see it for as long as I can remember.” He is referring to this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty; To find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you lived. This is to have succeeded.”