Sailing through life, civil engineering alumnus charts future for Auburn Engineers

Published: Dec 15, 2019 8:08 AM

By Lauren Winton

John Steele Henley II, ’63 civil engineering, is not your average retiree. At 80 years old, he races his sailboat competitively. In mid-April, Henley takes his 21-foot racer Brat out of storage, dusts off the residual winter ice and gets out on the cold Virginia waters.

He has been racing his sailboat competitively for years.

“I’ve always loved boats,” Henley said. “When I was a kid, I would go down to the corner store and get old pear and apple boxes. I would use the wood to build ships.”

One would think Henley’s passion would have translated into his career. And in a sense, it did. But not in nautical navigation. Henley had a distinguished career with the Navy through the Civil Engineer Corps. His area of expertise: project management in civil engineering.

“On June 17, 1957, I went to the Naval Reserve Training Center in Mobile and enlisted in the Naval Reserves – not that I remember the exact date or anything,” Henley said with a laugh. “After I entered Auburn, I enrolled in the Navy ROTC program. However, every Monday evening, me and three or four other guys would climb into this old Volkswagen bus and go to Columbus, Georgia for Naval Reserve training in our enlisted specialty.”

Henley’s college career was filled with ROTC training, applied engineering coursework and, during his last quarter in school, working for the highway department as a survey crew chief.

“It was one of those afternoons – a Friday, I think – when one of the guys came running up to our group just as we were about to leave for our project site and set up our surveying instruments. He said, ‘the President’s been shot!’ I didn’t believe him at the time. But when we realized he was telling the truth, and after we set up our transit, we all gathered around one of the guy’s small, portable radio and listened to the news,” Henley said. “That afternoon, our surveying project was all but forgotten.”

That Saturday morning, Henley was one of the ROTC students to raise the university flag to half-mast. The small, Cliff Hare Stadium – as Jordan-Hare was then known – was filled with students and fans mourning the fallen president.

“I remember everyone came and people stood, holding hands in honor of President Kennedy,” Henley said.

Back then, in the 1960s, Henley remembers Auburn University as a different place – “smaller, but still wonderful.”

The time was different, a decade when students wore suits to ballgames, and purchased boutonnieres for their dates. A time when football team practices were open for all to come and watch.

“Those were the years Shug Jordan was there,” Henley said. “They would have an open practice, and you could go and watch the team prepare for the games.”

Different times they were indeed, with engaged male students thrown in the “hog pond” following tradition, and the “ring dances” for the NROTC Midshipmen.

“That was fun,” Henley said with a laugh. “You would go to Ring Dance with your date, and the girl would tie a string to your class ring which had a Navy motif. She would dip it in water, which was ‘collected’ from the seven seas to bring good health and wellbeing. Seems so far it has worked!”

But although things may have changed for Auburn over the years, one thing has remained the same: “those engineering classes were tough.”

Henley remembers staying up all night working on problems with his slide rule and reams of paper. He remembers learning practical, usable and useful coursework and engineering principles.

“The structural labs, the surveying on campus all made the engineering real for us. And I think the same can probably be said for students today. They’re working with different technologies, of course, but getting an excellent education,” Henley said. “But when I was in school, it cost me $900 per year. Knowing the great discrepancy in the cost of education now compared to when I went through school encouraged me to give back.”

And give back he has. Henley established an endowed scholarship in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering.

“Working with Auburn Engineering has been such a delight,” Henley said. “I have really enjoyed meeting all of the recipients of our scholarship. And Dean [Christopher] Roberts… wow, what a fantastic job he does as dean.”

John and Geanie Henley

Henley also contributed funds toward the Shelby Center. The John Steele Henley II, ’63 Development and Communications and Marketing Conference Room was named in his honor. The room is also decorated with photos of Henley’s sailboats. Henley’s passion for boats went hand-in-hand with his passion for engineering. And through his philanthropic support, Henley has passed on his passion to future Auburn Engineers.

Henley retired from active duty in the Navy in 1984 and continued his engineering work in the Washington, D.C. area through two more career retirements. Finally, in March 2008, he put away his antique slide rule and took to the racecourse, sailboat style.

To learn more about how to support the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, contact the Office of Development by visiting

Media Contact: Lauren Winton,, 334.844.5519
John Henley

John Henley

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