A modern-day Ahab

In pursuit of geologic immortality, inventor Robert Henke has sacrificed everything: comfort, career, family

October 07, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

APEX, N.C. — APEX, N.C.-- --In a small North Carolina garage are Robert Henke's two remaining worldly possessions: a slightly banged-up 1967 Lotus Elan sports car and something that resembles a slim, 6-foot torpedo suspended from an aluminum frame.

When he takes it out for the rare spin, the cherry-colored ragtop gets admiring looks from passers-by - though it is the metal cylinder that ought to grab the world's attention.

But nobody cares.

The product of more than $2 million and 25 years of development, the device might just be the holy grail of earthquake engineering: a probe that can accurately predict the way various soils will react in a major quake. It could prevent building collapses and save lives. If it works.

On that score, the geotechnical jury is still out, though belated recognition and its attendant rewards will offer scant comfort to Henke, 60, a former Johns Hopkins engineering professor and McDonogh School graduate who lives alone in a tiny one-bedroom apartment outside Raleigh filled with little more than dozens of cardboard file boxes for furniture.

If success ever comes for Henke, "I won't be breaking out the champagne," he says, managing a wobbly laugh. A short, reedy man with a frizzled gray ponytail, Henke peers at his invention with drooping eyes from behind oversized eyeglasses. He continues in a sandy, quavering voice. "The human cost has been too high. It hasn't been worth it."

American culture valorizes the uncompromising dreamers, single-minded in their pursuit of greatness, and delights when they are plucked from obscurity, as in the case of some recent MacArthur Foundation "genius" grantees. Robert Henke's monastic life is a testament to that ideal, but he is also, as a former boss says, a "Captain Ahab of our generation," willing to wreck everything - including his family - chasing a dream that has become an obsession.

"If you to look at the life of a another man who fits every description of my father, but who made it, you will probably find they made just as many bad decisions, and are as singularly self-involved and selfish," says Henke's eldest son, Michael, 33, with a hint of bitterness. "When they make it, they're off the hook."

By Henke's accounting, the probe has cost him $1 million in personal investment and an aborted academic career that began promisingly at Hopkins in 1985 and ended five years later. In 2002, he lost his Lutherville home. His wife and research partner, Wanda, left him soon afterward.

Their 17-year-old son, Kevin, was hospitalized for clinical depression in middle school and recently faced a stint in adult prison, partly the consequence, the teenager and his mother say, of an intermittently neglectful and overbearing father who demanded of his family the same ruthless hunt for monumental accomplishment.

At an age when former university colleagues are contemplating comfortable retirements, Henke is unemployed and living off a meager allowance from his ailing mother in Potomac. He has no job prospects, no savings, few friends and little hope, he admits, of a happy ending.

Still, Henke works obsessively on the soil probe, shunning even in penury any gainful employment that would distract him from his research. It is no longer a labor of love - it never really was - but an increasingly desperate bid to make a privileged upbringing amount to something more than a cautionary tale about excessive ambition and idealism.

With his absent-minded-professor fashion sense (polo shirt neatly tucked into sweat pants), oddly winning personality quirks (giggling fits, mild obsessive-compulsive disorder) and mad-scientist digs, Robert Henke is the very picture of the eccentric genius archetype - like mathematicians John Nash or Kurt Goedel - whose human failings history forgives because of their larger contributions to humanity.

But Henke knows all too well that history takes note of marginal lives such as his only when their accomplishments are as brilliant as their promise. In the absence of ultimate triumph, posterity might well remember Henke, if it memorializes him at all, as the ghostly shadow of genius.

And so he works.

Already has a job

At 6:45 a.m. on a Friday in early May, Henke leaves his apartment for his daily run, shielded beneath a visor and old transparent poncho bandaged by electrical tape. Hobbled by a recent knee injury, he fixes his gaunt face into a determined grimace, clenches his fists and shuffles off, merging minutes later onto the shoulder of a busy highway.

His seven-mile jogging route is not picturesque, but then, Henke runs for principle, not pleasure. "I'm not an exercise enthusiast," he says. "It makes me feel sick."

But to abandon the morning routine at this point would carry too much symbolic significance for a man whose main accomplishment so far has been a refusal to quit.

At Apex High School, where son Kevin is a sophomore, Henke turns back, jogging 3.5 miles against the tide of morning commuters on their way to jobs.

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