Phyllis McHenry knew how to get the job done.

by Rebecca Baker
New Haven Register
January 20, 2001

HAMDEN —– That’s how friends, former employees and two ex-mayors remember McHenry, who died of a heart attack Jan. 11 at age 74.

“No job was too big for Phyllis,” said Sharon Dawkins, assistant to Mayor Carl Amento. “She was no-nonsense. She cut through it.”

McHenry worked for three mayors, started at least a half-dozen community groups and was instrumental in providing relief for victims of the 1989 tornado that devastated parts of Hamden.

Former Mayor John Carusone, who appointed McHenry as his human resources and economic development director, said Hamden’s grand list grew by $135 million during McHenry’s tenure.

“She was the definition of an ideal public servant,” he said. “She had a knack for dealing with people. She was remarkable. Her influence is everywhere.”

While working for Carusone, McHenry started the Hamden Human Needs Fund, which found housing for more than 300 people and raised more than $100,000 for tornado victims.

McHenry also was executive secretary to late Hamden Mayor Richard Harris in 1980 and was an administrative assistant and human services coordinator for ex-Mayor Peter Villano, now a state representative.

Villano, who was mayor from 1981 to 1985, said McHenry often sought an academic approach to problems and acted as a teacher to those under her.

“She was a very charming, decent person,” he said. “She would make her point forcibly, but pleasantly.”

Carol Ireland, Hamden’s coordinator for elderly services, said McHenry was her mentor in the early 1980s.

“She expected a lot out of her employees. People didn’t always agree with her — that’s for sure — but people did respect her,” Ireland said.

A former schoolteacher and nursery school director, McHenry founded Partnerships Center for Adult Daycare, which cares for approximately 20 elderly area residents every day. She remained on the board of directors up to last year.

She also founded the Hamden Beautification Committee, and helped to start the annual Goldenbells Festival in 1970.

Her daughter, Maryellen McHenry of Hanover, Md., said she didn’t realize her mother’s influence in Hamden until last week.

“My eyes would kind of glaze over when she would talk about town stuff,” she said. “She was always there for us.”

Gloria Sandillo, past director of the Hamden Chamber of Commerce, was planning to have lunch with McHenry the day she died. Sandillo said McHenry was a “level-headed” leader who never sought the limelight.

“She was low-key. She didn’t like a big fuss,” Sandillo said. “All of her life had been given to public service, and she gave her all. I lost an awful good friend.”