VALPARAISO — Darrin Pecka first met Jay Henderson through his dad, Duane, who had taken Henderson’s industrial tech class when he was a student at Raymond Central High School in the late ’60s.
But it was Henderson’s matte-black Hudson coupe — recognizable by many in Valparaiso — that drew Pecka’s admiration early on.
“Everybody knew who he was. Everybody knows what he had,” Pecka said.
Henderson drove that car to school every day, and the family took it into Lincoln to get groceries. It was the family car, Henderson’s wife, Polly, said.
“Everybody in the four (Raymond Central) towns, they all knew that was Jay Henderson driving that Hudson,” she said.
That car, and all of those industrial tech classes, are part of what made Henderson a local legend. Even as a kid, Pecka would knock on Jay and Polly’s front door and remind them that “Mr. Henderson can’t retire until I get to take his class.”
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Pecka graduated in 2012. Henderson retired the next year.
They’ve remained good friends, and now Pecka, with help from other former Raymond Central students, is preparing Henderson’s Hudson car collection for auction.
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On a Friday in late February, the afternoon sun is shining down on Pecka’s shoulders and his stocking cap. He rummages through rusted car doors, fenders and bumpers that have accumulated over the years, mixing and matching the pieces to create some semblance of organization. His hands are protected by winter work gloves as he inspects the car body parts strewn over straw-colored grass.
He doesn’t mind the work, though. He figures it’s the least he can do.
“(Jay) and Polly always say I’m like another kid,” Pecka said. “They’re older than that for me. They’re like another pair of grandparents.”
Juncos and sparrows chirp from a winter-worn maple tree nearby, the base of which is keeping company with a late-’30s Hudson Terraplane coupe with suspended headlights. That’s Polly’s favorite, though Jay interjects that the Terraplane series was an economy line and couldn’t keep up with a Hudson on a closed course.
Henderson’s love of Hudsons was long and unconditional. But it took a fascination with some earlier cars to eventually lead him to the Hudsons. He was in elementary school when a neighbor who raced stock cars asked Jay’s dad, Wesley, to fix his ’35 Plymouth with the fenders partially removed.
“I’d never seen anything with the fenders off like that,” Jay said. “And I thought, ‘How do I get one of those?’”
Wesley Henderson had never thought of working on stock cars before the Plymouth came along, but as Jay says, his dad could “make any car run good.” It started a long and successful run racing stock cars in the summer.
Jay first saw a Hudson one summer when two drivers from Hastings brought a pair of them to a race in York.
“I don’t remember if we won or anything, but when I saw those Hudsons, I just went nuts, and have ever since then,” he said.
He was drawn to the eight-cylinder coupe’s long wheelbase and its raised, plateau-like hood, which was built about six inches longer than the others, in order to conceal its straight-eight engine.
Henderson’s search for a stable of Hudsons started in Kearney during his college years.
His idea of a date night with Polly in those days was taking her on a drive around the Nebraska countryside with their eyes peeled. The search took them to Colorado, Iowa and Kansas.
“He would keep his eye out for just about anything Hudson,” Polly said.
He accumulated up to 14 Hudsons over the years and restored three of them. He sold one to his brother, and it wound up on the cover of “Street Rodder” magazine. He got rid of the other two out of concerns that they would get dinged up.
“Once you get them done and you start driving them and they’re all painted up real nice, you’re worried about somebody jumping on them,” he said.
But Henderson’s pride and joy is his matte-black Hudson with the hood and trunk painted bright-orange. He modified the car from a four-door frame, replaced it with a coupe body and installed a Chevy engine.
The license plate proudly reads “55J” – the 55 a reference to the first year that he ran a Hudson in a stock car series, and the “J” referring to his name.
The door of that Hudson stock car still rests in Jay’s mammoth storage shed behind his and Polly’s home. A bright-red “55” is emblazoned over a cream coat.
That same shed housed Henderson’s Hudson collection for years. Pecka said he had never seen the cars outside.
“Nobody could believe that he had those cars in that building,” Polly said.
They’re lined up in the backyard now. Some rusted, others heavily modified. Two of them look road-ready: a cream-colored one and a beige one, which was last registered in 1969, according to its license plate sticker.
The cars are the crown jewels of an online auction including automotive equipment, tools and memorabilia that Henderson has accumulated over the years.
Henderson suffered a stroke last summer, and doctors told him and Polly that its effects will eventually lead to dementia. They plan to move into a senior living center in Lincoln.
“We will be there where he can walk the halls, and then he could go talk to the other guys there,” Polly said.
It’s Pecka’s job to get the cars and parts organized. He doesn’t mind the work. He figures he owes Jay and Polly for all they’ve done for him and the Raymond Central community over the years.
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Henderson taught thousands of kids in his 47 years at the school. He and Polly — who worked as a school secretary — joined the district in 1966, the year before Valparaiso, Ceresco, Davey and Raymond consolidated.
“He dedicated his life to the school and the kids,” Polly said. “He was there on weekends and at night. He wanted to make sure that the kids all got a good start, having a good idea of what occupational things were available.”
Some of Pecka’s fondest memories with the Hendersons were on trips to Power Drive competitions, which tasked students with building light, safe and fast electric vehicles.
Henderson led the Raymond Central team, and Pecka recalls a national race at Kansas City Motor Speedway. Rain pelted the cars, and Pecka was in the driver’s seat, with water seeping in through the wheel wells.
Pecka remembers getting out of the car, soaked from the waist down.
“But we ended up winning that national race, and I could tell (Jay) was so excited,” he said.
When Pecka called in others to help prepare the Hudson collection for the auction, 25 former students — an assortment of machinists, body men and electricians — showed up at the Hendersons’ house in Valparaiso, at the end of First Street, next to the railroad tracks.
What meant the most to Henderson was that each former student was doing well, and many of them had gone into mechanical fields. He watched as his old students mingled.
“They were all laughing and having fun, and I thought, ‘I think this all worked out,’” he said.
The “55J” matte-black Hudson won’t be part of the auction, which Pecka was pleased to hear. He said he’d hate for the car to end up with an owner who wouldn’t take proper care of it.
But after the stroke, Henderson’s days of driving it are done. Yet on this day, someone needed to get the car out of the shed. Jay and Polly got in, backed it out and drove it around the trees. Just the two of them. One last time.
“It was just so much fun,” Polly said. “It was like old times.”
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