Mike Henson has been involved with the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition since the beginning. Indeed, Mike’s work with urban Appalachia precedes UACC and goes back to its predecessor, the Urban Appalachian Council. I sat down with Mike Henson at his home in Mount Washington to learn as much I could about his work. I discovered there is more to learn than I could keep up with.
After his arrival in Cincinnati in 1965 to attend Xavier University, Mike got the opportunity to work with Ernie Mynatt, the spiritual founder of UAC and the inspiration for much of the work the volunteers still perform in the service of the urban Appalachian community. Social worker, teacher, and community organizer, Mike described Ernie Mytnatt as “a huge inspiration to me. He founded numerous Appalachian programs in the area.”
Working with Ernie Mynatt led to a job in the summer of 1968 in Over-the-Rhine just before his senior year of college. These early experiences would set a course for Mike Henson’s life working to alleviate poverty and as an advocate for urban Appalachians. These early experiences also set him on a course as a substance abuse counselor. Working as an advocate for the homeless, as an addiction counselor, and bringing all of this toward a focus on the urban Appalachian community has been the primary focus of Mike Henson’s efforts.
Mike’s life’s work has also been the inspiration for numerous works of fiction and poetry. His writing focuses primarily on Appalachian issues, particularly the ways poverty and addiction have plagued both rural and urban Appalachian people. His book, Tommy Perdue, published by Mote Books, may well be the first work of fiction to take on the opiate addiction crisis among Appalachians. The main character is a man all too familiar in our time; struggling with poverty and a fundamental lack of possibilities, Tommy Perdue turns to crime as a way of living and Oxycontin as a way of coping. Mike Henson takes on similar themes is Maggie Boylan. This is a collection of linked short stories that depict the opiate addiction crisis in Appalachian Ohio. This book received tremendous reviews and has been taught at numerous universities.
In addition to his own writing, Mike Henson remains active with the Appalachian Studies Association which is a group of scholars writing, researching, and teaching about Appalachia. He is also involved in the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative, another group of activists and writers devoted to Appalachian life and culture.
It is real experience that Mike Henson brings to his literary efforts. From the early days of working with the homeless in Over-the-Rhine, Mike Henson began taking on the struggles of urban Appalachians. Taking some time to teach in Adams County, Ohio and, after returning from Chicago where he met with communities of urban Appalachians, Mike met with Mike Maloney and helped set in motion the beginnings of the Urban Appalachian Council, the forerunner of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. This was to be and remains, a coalition of volunteers dedicated to taking on those issues and problems that impact the urban Appalachian population of greater Cincinnati. As it has always been, Mike’s work with UACC recognizes that the urban Appalachian experience is embedded in the larger urban community. Though there has always been a specific emphasis on urban Appalachian communities, issues of social justice concern everyone.
Over the years Mike Henson worked in almost all capacities with UAC. He pulled away for some time during the years he worked for Talbert House as an addiction counselor but remained on the board. Much of his initial work with the Urban Appalachian Council took place in the Heritage Room in Over-the-Rhine where he initiated cultural and education programs. Later, Mike brought his work with addiction counseling to the Appalachian community, including in the East End in Cincinnati, where he worked with the Appalachian Consortium on Chemical Dependency to help with efforts to combat the rising problem of opioid addiction within both the rural and urban Appalachian communities.
Mike Henson has somehow also found the time to play lots of music with his wife, Elissa Pogue, also a UACC Steward, in their group Carter Bridge. The first thing I noticed upon entering his house was the collection of musical instruments—a string bass played by his wife and various other acoustic instruments for playing traditional roots and bluegrass. One wonders how he has the time… Oh, and writing more books, both poetry and fiction. If you were at the Express Urban Appalachian Showcase you heard Mike read his poem “They All Asked About You,” from his collection entitled The Dead Singing.
Mike Henson is still active with UACC. He is also Chair of Mount Washington Cares. This was started a little over a year ago as a response to the growing opiate addiction problem. Mount Washington Cares provides sponsor prevention programs, promotes awareness of addiction issues, and provides things like Narcan training. Mike’s work in Over-the-Rhine continues with his help at Jimmy Heath House which provides permanent supportive housing for the homeless.
The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition works because of dedicated volunteers. Mike Henson remains as more than an example; he is the embodiment of dedication that makes UACC function. I spoke with Mike for a little over an hour. As we finished, I stopped to admire his collection of cast iron skillets. Mike layered up to take his coon hound, Carter, out for a run in the woods behind the house. Mike left me with a brief description of a real coon hunt. I’ll spare you those details.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.