Enrique “Henry’’ Cardenas spent 28 years behind a camera for WSVN-7 — and most of his spare time feeding stray cats.
He carted around huge bags of cat food in “Unit 22’’ — his station-issued, white Ford Crown Victoria — and colleagues knew that between assignments, they could find him doling out kibble to feral felines at Pelican Harbor Park, close to WSVN studios on the 79th Street Causeway.
Cardenas, a Cuban exile, mentored a generation of young colleagues, many of whom posted poignant remembrances on his Facebook page after Cardenas died Tuesday at 71, at his home in North Miami Beach.
A beloved figure at the station, he was known for his deeply personal style of storytelling, his spirituality, compassion and graciousness.
“Henry was an elegant man who insisted on opening his news-unit door for his female reporters,” recalled Kelley Mitchell, now with WLRN-91.3. “We might be going 85 miles an hour to get to a fire, but we were going to do it with class. And a bag of cat food in the backseat.’’
Born July 20, 1941, in Santa Clara, Cuba, Cardenas arrived in South Florida during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. He’d been an award-winning cinematographer with Cuba’s Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematográfica who’d traveled all over the world, and WSVN quickly snapped him up.
He studied Latin American art at university, said Alina Cardenas, his wife of 33 years, but “the camera, he learned on his own.’’
Cardenas initially supported Fidel Castro, and told colleagues he’d been his “personal photographer.’’ In 1992, he told The Miami Herald that in the ’70s, he was on a team that filmed top Cuban officials for government documentaries.
But Cardenas grew disillusioned with the government, which had jailed his wife’s stepfather, and rushed to escape Cuba with his wife aboard a Mariel boat called “Time,’’ when the regime released his stepfather-in-law.
Two children, from a previous marriage, followed later.
In Florida, his politics leaned to the right. Cardenas gleefully embraced the Tea Party, filling his Facebook page with anti-Barack Obama photo spoofs.
Former WSVN reporter Brian Andrews, who left a year before Cardenas retired in 2009, called Cardenas “a pillar of the Plex.’’ (The station’s newsroom is known as the “Newsplex.’’)
“We loved that man,’’ said Andrews, now director of English language news and programming for RCN’s International Channels. “He was the first guy you were sent out with: ‘This new kid’s not going to cut if he can’t work with Henry...’ I learned how to tell a great story from Henry...He saw the things that tug at your heart.’’
Cardenas made sure that “young reporters knew to enjoy life. Cuban coffee was a mandatory stop during any assignment, even breaking news,’’ Andrews said.
Cardenas died at his North Miami Beach home of respiratory failure following years of bad health that decimated his once robust frame.
A former smoker, he contracted jaw cancer about 10 years ago. Doctors replaced part of his jaw with a metal plate, which led to complications like trouble swallowing and pneumonia, said close friend and neighbor Evelyn Garrison.