Robert John Henle was born in 1909 in Muscatine, Iowa, where his father owned a movie theater. Financial reverses precipitated the removal of the family to California, where the father, despondent over the turn events had taken, committed suicide. A return to Muscatine was short-lived, and Robert found himself back in California and enrolled in the eighth grade in the cathedral school of Los Angeles. Henle reported that here he had his first taste of teaching when he and a girl student were delegated to instruct the first graders during the periodic illnesses of the elderly nun who normally took the class. Henle described the experience as "sweet and delightful." "To work with young people of whatever age, to see their minds expand, to see their characters develop, see them through crises, see them go on to further things, this I have always found a most exciting and happy occupation."
Soon thereafter Henle moved to Glencoe, Illinois, near Chicago, and attended Loyola, a Jesuit high school, for three years. He finished his secondary studies in Mobile, Alabama at the Jesuit high school there. During his stay in the South, Henle said, he came face to face with the virulent racism that permanently influenced him to seek social justice. He also enjoyed a stint as a Fuller Brush man, which he credited with giving him the talent for fundraising that later served him so well as president of Georgetown.
Moving back to Muscatine with his mother, Henle began to investigate Jesuit colleges. He wrote to one of his former high school teachers now headquartered at Creighton University in Omaha and explained his financial straits, saying that he was hoping to secure a scholarship. Creighton tendered the young man a full tuition scholarship as well as a job.
At Creighton, Henle continued his high school interest in debating and in journalism, advocating in an editorial the withdrawal of American marines from Nicaragua. This concern for the United States position in Central America remained with Henle throughout his life. Henle considered careers in journalism, law, or science, but before beginning his sophomore year of college, he decided to become a Jesuit. Although he had previously "resisted all thought of it," he now felt differently: "No matter what happened, I was going to give everything I had to be a good Jesuit priest."
On September 1, 1927 Henle entered the Jesuit novitiate in Florissant, Missouri. While there he was assigned to teach Latin, Greek, and speech at Saint Louis University High School, an experience that led him "to become completely discontented with the Latin curriculum in our schools, and particularly with the books that we were using."
From this seed grew the famous Henle Latin Series of textbooks, used by most Jesuit high schools in the United States for many years. Henle produced the books while he was still in the novitiate. He also found time to complete degrees in theology and philosophy at Saint Louis University.
In June, 1940, Henle was ordained a priest at St. Mary's College in Kansas. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Toronto in 1944 and immediately joined the faculty of Saint Louis University as an instructor in philosophy. In 1950 Henle became dean of the Graduate School, while the following year saw him as dean of the School of Philosophy and Letters. In 1959 he was appointed University research administrator, and six years later he was made vice president for academic administration. During his tenure, Henle demonstrated a progressive approach to graduate education in areas such as dentistry, nursing, and hospital administration, and garnered Saint Louis University great prestige in academic planning and educational innovation. Henle also remained an active teacher and prolific author.
As an expert on Latin America, Henle established the Latin American program at the University in 1960 to promote understanding and cooperation between the peoples of the region and to provide trained teachers for Latin American secondary schools. His proposals to the Peace Corps resulted in University programs that trained volunteers for service in Honduras and Panama. At Henle's instigation the University also initiated a cooperative assistance program through the Agency for International Development (AID) with various Latin American universities.
In 1969, Henle was tapped as the 45th president of Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States. Never before had the school chosen a president from outside the ranks of Maryland Province Jesuits. An important reason for Henle's selection was said to be his ''creative and imaginative approaches to the problems of Catholic higher education."
Henle's stay at Georgetown was controversial. While he succeeded in placing the financially ailing institution on a firmer monetary footing, he was criticized for overemphasis on the financial aspect of administration, his authoritarian manner, and the firing of a much admired administrator. In 1976, Henle resigned the presidency, citing his desire to return to teaching and leave behind the excessive pressures experienced by modern college presidents. Some sources insisted that he in his turn had been fired by the Board of Trustees. Henle then returned to Saint Louis University.
Upon arriving in St. Louis, Henle resumed teaching philosophy and was also appointed the first holder of the McDonnell Professorship in Justice in American Society, which allowed him to give seminars in the School of Law. He held this post until retiring from it in 1982, when he solicited funds from longtime friends to allow him to continue his scholarly endeavors. Henle died of infirmities on January 20, 2000 at the age of 90. In his lifetime he had been honored by the German and Italian governments as well as by numerous universities both in the United States and abroad. He left a published legacy of more than 200 articles on philosophy and education as well as a dozen books.