George Henke, man of action. 1929 to 2018
George was born in Sebastopol to Zelma “Skip” Painter and Gerhard Henke. After his father’s death in the Great Depression, he moved with his mother to Alta Heights, later settling into life with his mom and James “Bud” Altenbern in downtown Napa.
He was very active with the Boy Scouts of America, attaining the rank of Eagle Scout and later serving as a Scout Master. He also joined the Napa Sea Scouts. Scouting paved the way to adventures hiking, back-packing, and exploring the Sierras with his life-long friend Ray McCann.
As a young man, he worked on the Nye-Allenby Ranch in Wooden Valley. He played football at Napa High, bombed around Napa endlessly in his World War II jeep, and got into mischief with his friends—the way young men do.
After high school, George enlisted in the Air Force. He trained as a weatherman and was stationed in Mercury, Nevada, performing weather observations for the above-ground nuclear testing program. Later, his duties took him England. There he finished his four-year term of service and fell in love with a British roadster. He returned to Napa with a shiny new Austin Healey and joined the local British sports car club.
As luck would have it, another club member was an enthusiastic Austin Healy owner. Raised in Vallejo, Bea Price shared George’s passion for the British roadsters, even if she drove them with a bit less reckless abandon. They fell in love and were married in 1957. She was the love of his life.
George and Bea settled in the densely forested canyons of upper Dry Creek Road. There they built their mid-century modern dream home and raised their two children, Kurt and Anna. They were both active in the Dry Creek-Lokoya Volunteer Fire Department.
He started his professional career working on the floor of Kaiser Steel’s Napa fabrication plant. By working hard during the day and studying hard at night school, George became a California registered professional engineer. He continued with Kaiser, having moved from the factory floor to overseeing nondestructive testing during fabrication of large projects, including offshore drilling platforms constructed at the Napa plant.
After twenty-eight years at Kaiser, he joined Bechtel in San Francisco as a non-destructive testing engineer specializing in nuclear power plants. His job took him all over the United State and around the world, including India, Germany, and Korea. A long-term assignment with ESCOM Power in South Africa lead George and Bea to relocate to Johannesburg for several incredible and adventurous years before returning to their home in the Napa Valley.
A man of tireless industry, George took on several ambitious projects after he retired from Bechtel. The first was concourse-level restorations of Bea’s Austin Healey and his friend Bob Downing‘s Aston Martin. George and Bob spent years hunkered down in their garages together, wrenching and cursing, to bring the beautiful old roadsters back to life. The cars were celebrated at local motoring events.
George was active in ASNT (American Society of Non-Destructive Testing) through his entire professional career. After retiring, he created an extensive exhibit highlighting the field of non-destructive testing of metals for the Mare Island Museum. He curated all the museum pieces and prepared all the displays and interpretive text. It is the only exhibit of its kind in the nation.
In his final days, he and Bea returned to the home in Napa where he was raised. He fed wild birds and joyfully pursued small projects in and around the hundred-year-old house.
George was 88. No memorial service is planned. If you knew George, please consider donating to a charity that supports science, engineering, or outdoor programs. And of course, if you’re down at the pub, raise a pint or two in his honor.