Minnesota lost one of the "towering figures" of its legal community with the recent passing of Robert F. Henson, a founding partner of the Minneapolis law firm Henson & Efron.

Henson, born in Jenny Lind, Ark., died June 23 in Minneapolis at the age of 87. Friends and colleagues remembered him for his disarming Southern manner and his strict adherence to ethics and honesty.

"I sort of learned the art of being a trial lawyer from him," recalled Richard Solum, a retired Hennepin County District Court judge and former partner who went to work with Henson in 1969. He said Henson could defuse the most adversarial tensions in a dispute by offering a moderate assessment that picked up the best of both sides.

Over time, Henson's legal practice evolved from business and commercial litigation to the dicey arena of family law.

"I've known lawyers that were on the other side of Bob and I've known some husbands on the other side of Bob's client, the wife, and you would never hear anybody, even in that arena, speak ill of him," Solum said.

He said Henson had a sort of "raw honesty" that could not be compromised and recalled an incident in which an important client had balked at turning over some documents in a significant lawsuit.

"And Henson, rather than trying to figure out ways to compromise the issue or otherwise accommodate the client, simply said, 'We're going to turn them over or you can find another lawyer,'" Solum said. "He just did everything the right way."

After high school, Henson joined the Navy. Jean Peterson, his future wife of nearly 60 years, led him to her hometown of Minneapolis, where he attended the University of Minnesota and later, its law school, where he graduated third in his class in 1950.

Henson went to work for Gray Plant Mooty. He formed his own firm in 1966 and served as its president for almost 40 years. He retired in 2004 after becoming disabled in the wake of surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm.

Joe Dixon Jr., former managing partner, has fond memories of Henson.

"The advice he gave me as a young lawyer was, 'You know, you're not going to win all your cases. You want to walk out of courtroom knowing you've done your best, and that's all you owe your clients.' So he sort of knew what he controlled and what he didn't control," Dixon said.

"He had a unique ability to tell clients the truth about their case in a way that never sugarcoated it, but a way that they could accept it. And that's a hard thing to do in our business," Dixon said. "In the courtroom he had the same way of laying things out for the judge and jury. He was an amazing guy."

Henson played a number of important roles in the Twin Cities legal community. He was a former president of the Hennepin County Bar Association, which presented him with its Professionalism Award in 1995. He was a member of the Board of Governors of the Minnesota State Bar Association, and served on the Hennepin County Ethics Committee, the bar's Client Security Fund, and the Minnesota Lawyers Board of Professional Responsibility, which he chaired from 1982 to 1986. He also served on the Emma Howe and Minneapolis Foundation boards.

Henson is survived by his children, Bob Jr. of Inverness, Fla., Sandra Curfman of Wondervu, Colo., Laura Henson of Golden Valley, Tom Henson of Erie, Colo., David Henson of Northfield and Steven Henson of New Hope. He is also survived by a brother, Joe Henson of Greenwich, Conn., and a sister, Mary Nelle Hales of Fort Smith, Ark. His wife, Jean, died in 2006.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at First Universalist Church, 3400 Dupont Av. S., Minneapolis.

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493