February 24, 2014 at 1:00 am

Winning together: Henderson's legacy

Subject of the late journalist's Pulitzer Prize tale is retired and reflective

Angelo Henderson transitioned from print journalism to radio, where he hosted 'Your Voice' on WCHB-AM (1200). (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

They were connected by death, and later by victory. By a bullet from a pistol, and then by a Pulitzer Prize.

Dennis Grehl was only defending himself and the assistant frantically emptying the cash register at the little pharmacy in Northwest Detroit. Angelo Henderson was only doing what reporters do.

Grehl shot a robber. He pulled a .32-caliber Beretta from the holster behind his back and squeezed the trigger as a dope dealer named Anthony Williams yanked a gun from his waistband.

Henderson wrote the story. He filled it with nuance and detail in the Wall Street Journal and won the most significant prize in journalism.

Grehl is 73 now, retired in Florida, living on a lake.

Henderson's funeral is today.

He was 51 when his big heart stopped two Saturdays ago. High blood pressure and blocked arteries, the medical examiner said. The service will start at 11 a.m. at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, and if you're going, you’d best get there early.

He worked at The Detroit News before the Journal, and then again afterward. His widow, Felecia, is still here, as our assistant managing editor for features; their son, Grant, just turned 20.

His dad ultimately gave up newspapers for the ministry and the radio, most recently hosting a talk show on WCHB-AM (1200) and succeeding for the same reasons Grehl let him into his life.

Henderson was a burly guy with a big laugh that brought everyone in on the joke. He asked hard questions with a soft touch. He made people comfortable.

“We had a rapport,” says Grehl, on the phone from a city called Tavares on one of the rare days he’s not piloting his boat.

Henderson had met Grehl years before, reporting a story about a spate of robberies in Old Redford, but he had the sense and grace to wait three months after the fatal shooting before reaching out.

“That was wise,” Grehl says. “By that time I was receptive.”

His honesty and Henderson’s artistry created a story that still resonates in a medium that’s meant to be disposable.

A Pulitzer is forever.

It almost makes you immortal.

New life in Florida

Grehl appreciates longevity.

He met his wife, Sue, in pharmacy school, and they’ve been married 44 years. He worked at Redford Pharmacy for 42 years, starting as a delivery boy and becoming a fixture in the neighborhood.

Before he and Sue moved to Florida in 2005, they lived in the same house on the water in White Lake Township for 35 years.

He hauled his boat down with them, and the 21-foot Rinker bowrider has become the fulcrum of their social life, along with the sound-system work he does in the clubhouse of their gated community.

It’s been a brisk winter, he says cheerfully; he’s worn long pants twice already. Three times a week, he hits the gym.

An older neighbor passed away recently, and Grehl is fixing the man’s boat as a favor to the widow so she can sell it.

The man had been an FBI agent, and another neighbor is a retired sheriff. Sometimes the three of them would go to a gun range just for fun.

He doesn’t have a concealed carry permit, though. “Down here, I never even considered it.”

Never again

In Michigan, Sue would drive west to her job near Lansing and he would head south.

The pharmacy sits next to the historic Redford Theatre on Lahser Road, in an area that has faltered like so much of the city but has never stopped trying.

Once, Grehl says, burglars broke into the barbershop next door, beat through the connecting concrete wall and had a party in the back room with the store’s fresh syringes. Another time, someone took a blowtorch to the metal security grate.

The robbery that resonatedwas one in 1990 where two men came in with guns. Grehl “found himself lying face down on a cold, gritty black-tile floor,” Henderson wrote in the Pulitzer piece, “a pistol against the back of his head.” And Grehl resolved to never feel so vulnerable again.

An MP in Vietnam, he knew how to handle weapons and had a license to wear one. At the drugstore, he only drew it once: Jan. 18, 1997, when a criminal and father of five known as “Yo Roller” threatened the assistant and rushed the register.

“Four feet apart,” Henderson wrote, “their eyes meet, fleetingly.”

Grehl fired.

Moving on

That was early on a Saturday afternoon. By Monday, the prosecutor’s office had declared the shooting justifiable.

Grehl went to buy a replacement weapon that morning. His had been confiscated for the investigation, and he worried that Williams’ associates might come looking for revenge.

At the gun shop in Oakland County, deputies recommended a psychologist in Traverse City — a former policeman who would understand.

The counselor helped, he says, but still: He had killed a man. It was the beginning of the end of his career.

Before long, the store put in a 4-foot bulletproof glass blockade, and “it took all the fun out of pharmacy. I felt like I was in a cage, I guess.”

Henderson’s story ran a year after the incident. It was wide-ranging — he found Williams’ mother and his angry ex-con brother in Chicago — and masterful. A seven-member jury awarded it the 1999 Pulitzer for feature writing.

Henderson sent Grehl a signed copy of the story when the Journal nominated it for the prize, and another after it won. He appreciated the gesture and he still has them, bound in plastic.

Grehl felt certain he had done the right thing, or at least not a wrong thing. But it was good to hear affirmations, be they from friends or cops or the 15 strangers from around the country who phoned the store the day the story ran.

“I didn’t sleep well for probably two years” after the shooting, he says, but slowly, he worked through it.

If the subject comes up now, he says, it’s not in relation to the event, but to the fact that he was part of a Pulitzer Prize.

Grehl is at peace with what happened.

Angelo Henderson is at peace.

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Retired in Florida, Dennis Grehl remembers Angelo Henderson fondly and ... (Grehl family photo)
Henderson also became a minister. Here he does the call of celebration at ... (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)