Ray Henderson, first manager of Rancho Murieta, dies at 88

Published March 15, 2005, at RanchoMurieta.com

Ray Henderson, the man who transformed a turkey ranch into the community of Rancho Murieta, died March 7 at his home in Sun City Roseville. He was 88.

In the 1960s, Mr. Henderson helped the Pension Trust Fund of the Operating Engineers buy a half-dozen ranches to build a training center 25 miles outside Sacramento.

The 3,500-acre training center would become Rancho Murieta, but only after the engineer trainees carved out golf courses, moved tons of earth for dams and lakes, built an equestrian center and airport, installed miles of water and sewer system and bulldozed roads through the empty hills.

Mr. Henderson stayed with the job into the 1980s as PTF project manager and owner of the development sales operation, but those titles do not reflect the full weight of his presence.

As the first homes appeared in the 1970s and the community began to grow, with the PTF running the Country Club and the homeowners association, Mr. Henderson, who lived in the community, was more mayor than manager – and a mayor who didn’t have to worry about being re-elected.

“He controlled everything – the Country Club, maintenance, the golf course,” recalled former Security Chief Jim Noller, who was hired by Mr. Henderson in the summer of 1975.

Noller remembered a man who was pleasant to everyone but hard-working and very businesslike.

“I always admired him,” Noller said. “… He had a lot of things on his plate … just an all-around smart guy when it came to property and managing.

“I never looked forward to my Monday morning meetings with him, though, because I’d get my butt chewed for something that happened over the weekend. He ran a stern ship. He kept his hand on everything. He knew exactly what was going on at all times. Nothing got by him.”

“He was a gentleman of the old school, very polite, always polite, no matter how cantankerous or contentious the situation,” recalled Murietan Marion Cravens, who lived next door to Henderson for a time and worked alongside him on community projects.

“He liked to do business on a handshake and he really got frustrated when the world changed and you had to have a lawyer for every little thing. … His word was his bond,” said Debbie Henderson of her husband.

Murietan Claude Luke, who ran the golf operation for Mr. Henderson, remembered a man who was particular about how things were done.

“It was pretty hard to change his mind once he made up his mind how it was going to be,” said Luke, adding, “He had his design on everything around and he had good taste. … He was as classy a guy as you’re ever going to meet.”

Rod Hart, Rancho Murieta Association maintenance manager, recalled Mr. Henderson taking visitors to the top of Gazebo Hill in the 1970s and, arms sweeping to the north and east, telling them what would be built on the land that stretched beneath them.

“He was the visionary,” Hart said.

Ray HendersonRay Henderson started his business career in vehicle sales and moved to real estate in the 1950s.

Ray D. Henderson was born May 8, 1916, the third son in a family of five boys and one girl on a ranch in Tolbert, Texas.

A family history tells the story of his early adulthood:

After high school graduation, Ray decided to become a farmer. There were very few tractors in those days in the Texas Panhandle, so his father rigged up a six-horse team and turned it over to Ray, along with 100 acres of land. Plowing from sunup to sundown, 18-year-old Ray had plenty of time to think, and his thinking was intensified by the Dust Bowl years in Texas.

Ray handed his plow over to his father in 1935 and set out to find his niche. He hitchhiked to California and ran out of money in Alturas. He got a job in A.W. McCaughan’s grocery store and service station and worked nights at the Ford dealership. During the summer he met Marie Espil at the boarding house where both were staying. They were married on December 21, 1935. Ray and Marie’s two sons, Ron and Marty, were both born in Alturas.

Ray sold automobiles for other dealers and in December of 1936 he bought and operated the Chrysler and Plymouth dealership under the name of Henderson Motor Sales. It wasn’t long before Ray was operating the Ford dealership and Marie worked as his bookkeeper.

In December 1941, Ray was operating the Chevrolet truck and automobile agency in Alturas. Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor. Reasoning that it was only a question of a few weeks until the government would assume control of the sale of all motor vehicles, Henderson started buying all the heavy earth-moving trucks he could find on the market. With this equipment he went to Richmond, where he obtained a contract for moving earth at the Kaiser shipyards, employing three shifts of drivers for each truck, thus keeping his equipment busy 24 hours a day during World War II.

In 1946, Mr. Henderson bought a farm-equipment business in Woodland, including the International Harvester and truck franchise for Yolo and Colusa counties. In 1948, he became a Tucker automobile dealer and, his family recalled, had a show at Sacramento Memorial Auditorium with Preston Tucker in attendance.

He moved from vehicles to real estate in the 1950s, handling commercial and ranch properties for MacBride Realty in Sacramento.

In the 1960s, Mr. Henderson led a small group of investors in buying the Cameron Park community in El Dorado County. With the golf residential community already in place, Mr. Henderson expanded the airport and developed the concept of “airport” homes where pilots could land their planes and park them in a garage under the home. He added an equestrian center and recreational lake, continued to develop residential lots, and later built several custom homes and an apartment complex.

During his years in Rancho Murieta, colleagues recalled, Ray Henderson was always polite and businesslike.

Speaking with interviewers in 1998, Mr. Henderson recalled the start of Rancho Murieta, growing from the purchase of the Granlees turkey farm in the 1960s

“All the land that you see here started from the Granlees ranch,” Mr. Henderson said, “and then we picked up six additional ranches, small ones, that were adjacent to each other, so that the water rights could be carried right on through….

“The Granlees property had good water rights on the Cosumnes River, being so old and … they’d used their water rights all the time in the production of the ranch property. … And the ranches we bought adjacent to that had no water rights on the Cosumnes River, but we were able to take our total rights and reallocate them to the (overall property). So we could then have enough water to develop the planned unit development.”

That water, captured in newly built lakes, made the development possible.

Rancho Murieta’s water management was one of Mr. Henderson’s favorite topics. He spoke often of the “gravitational flow” of the multi-tiered dam system. His family recalled that when he was asked how much formal training he had in engineering, he responded with a laugh, “No engineering degree. Just the invaluable experience of building things wrong for so many years.”

Mr. Henderson was responsible for every aspect of the new community’s development.

Beyond his official responsibilities, he and his wife, Marie, were active residents of Rancho Murieta.

“He and Marie were very strong founders in the community, very involved in all the activities, very supportive of getting the formation of the homeowners association and the townhouse board … those sort of things,” said Cravens.

Mr. Henderson and the PTF parted in 1983, the fallout of political wrangling within the PTF, and Mr. Henderson sued for $4.7 million. The suit was settled two years later, as part of Davis farmer Jack Anderson’s purchase of the development from the PTF.

He opened a small brokerage business in Sacramento and, with his sons, developed a shopping center in Citrus Heights.

Mr. Henderson moved to Sun City Roseville in 1996 and, after the death of his wife, married Debbie Hatfield.

They loved to play golf and travel, his family remembered. When his health began to fail – he was diagnosed with acute leukemia in January – he still enjoyed reading books, going out to lunch, and visiting friends.

Mr. Henderson last visited Rancho Murieta in September 2002, when he and his wife attended a premiere party for a video about the history of the community. The video, produced by community volunteers, included interviews with Mr. Henderson and others who helped found the community.

Mr. Henderson’s remains will be buried in St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Cemetery on the South Course. A golf ball with the Rancho Murieta Country Club logo will be buried with him.

He was a 32nd degree Mason in the Modoc Lodge in Alturas, and spent time in the Elks and Rotary organizations. He belonged to the Ben Ali Temple in Sacramento.

He was a member of the Yolo Fliers Club, the Sutter Club, Cameron Park Country Club and Rancho Murieta Country Club.

He is survived by his wife, Debbie; sons Ron and Marty; granddaughters Kim, Kelly, Karen, Jenny, Kendal, and Emily; and great-grandchildren Maddie, Katie, Ethan, Shea and Olivia. Mr. Henderson was preceded in death by his first wife, Marie.

Family and friends are invited to a celebration of his life at 3 p.m. Saturday, March 19, at Pleasant Grove Community Church, 1730 Pleasant Grove Blvd., Roseville (adjacent to Sun City Roseville). In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial donations be made to Pleasant Grove Community Church or The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, 3105 Fite Circle, Suite 101, Sacramento 95827.