Hero's ship comes in, after years of neglect Recognition: The memory of Matthew A. Henson, whose role in Robert E. Peary's expedition to the North Pole was ignored for decades, is honored as a Navy ship named for him arrives in Baltimore.

November 17, 1998|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The spirit of African-American explorer Matthew A. Henson returned to Baltimore yesterday aboard the Navy's newest and most sophisticated oceanographic survey ship, the 330-foot USNS Henson.

His descendants were there, some on board and others waiting proudly at the dock.

"One hundred twenty years ago, Matthew Alexander Henson left the Inner Harbor as a 13-year-old cabin boy," said James E. Henson III of Ellicott City, a member of the Maryland Commission on Human Relations and grandnephew of the explorer.

"One hundred twenty years later, a ship bearing his name -- a state-of-the-art Navy survey ship -- returns to Baltimore. I think there's a little bit of irony there," Henson said, to a flurry of applause.

The Henson is one of seven ocean research ships in town this week for the Marine Technology Society's meeting at the Convention Center.

But it was the historic -- and human -- significance of the Henson's arrival yesterday that most moved the small crowd on hand.

Henson's pivotal role in Navy Cmdr. Robert E. Peary's 1909 expedition to the North Pole was widely ignored in his day. Although Henson broke trails, built camps, repaired sleds, drove the dog teams and might have reached the pole first, Peary was given the honor as his own. It was not until 1937 that the Explorer's Club in New York recognized Henson's contribution.

It took until 1954 -- a year before Henson's death -- for Henson to win full recognition from his government. President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented him with an award acknowledging his achievement.

Debate has raged for years over who really was first to the pole. The feat was claimed by Peary and by Frederick A. Cook. Cook's claims have since been widely discounted. Some have argued that Peary and Henson fell 30 to 60 miles short of the pole.

But Henson's accomplishments were always honored by his family, said 75-year-old Olive Henson of Boston, a grandniece of the Maryland-born polar adventurer. She remembers visiting him in New York City when she was a child and trying on his arctic gear.

He entertained his family with tales of the Inuit people, who taught the explorers how to survive in the high arctic and held Henson in highest esteem. Both Henson and Peary fathered children with Inuit women.

Olive Henson once asked her father, Earl, whether Matthew was ever angry about the way his achievements were ignored. "He said, 'No. That's not our family's way,' " she said.

She was one of several family members on hand yesterday when the ship came into sight after an overnight cruise from Norfolk. "I'm so thrilled. My heart won't stop pounding," she said.

The arrival ceremonies were accompanied by a band from Matthew A. Henson Middle School in Charles County.

Also on shore was Mary Dent, whose husband will carry on the slender tradition of Maryland's arctic adventurers during the grueling Iditarod race across Alaska in March.

Daniel F. Dent, 57, a Baltimore investment counselor and Police Athletic League board member, will compete in the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome. He hopes to raise $500,000 in sponsorships, all of which will be given to PAL.

Students at all 27 PAL centers in Baltimore are competing in an essay contest to select a city student to fly to Alaska with a PAL officer and ride with Daniel Dent on the first day of the race.

Mary Dent sounded less than effusive about the idea of the 57-year-old Baltimore investment adviser taking on nearly two weeks of moose, wolves, howling winds, snow and sub-zero cold.

No matter. "He loves the cold weather, he loves dogs and he loves doing things for other people," she said. "I am behind him every step of the way."

Daniel Dent has been mushing dogs in Alaska for five years. In January, he finished 17th in the Copper Basin 300 race, qualifying him for the Iditarod. He will be one of the race's oldest competitors, and one of handful from the lower 48.

City children hoping to join Daniel Dent at the Iditarod's starting line have been provided with books from city libraries and begun work on their essay questions, including one about "the greatest Maryland musher and arctic explorer."

During the race, PAL children will follow Daniel Dent's progress on the Internet.

He hopes the vicarious adventure, and a newfound knowledge of Matthew Henson's contributions to arctic exploration, will inspire city children with new dreams, and an awareness of new possibilities for their future. "I think it's extraordinarily exciting," he said.

Daniel Dent plans to go to Alaska for training runs next month and in January, and will compete again in the Copper Basin 300 before returning for the Iditarod in March.

For more information, try the Internet at www.matthewhenson. com.

Pub Date: 11/17/98

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