Birthdays meant something to Jack Hensley. He flew 6,700 miles in June to surprise his daughter on her 13th, walking into their house in this wooded Atlanta suburb, just down the road from Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park.
If this had not been a week of incomprehensible sadness, Hensley would have been celebrating his own birthday -- his 49th -- on Wednesday. Instead, his wife and daughter have been cloistered inside the house where they celebrated three months ago, blocked from the world by police tape, and grieving the loss of a husband and dad.
Hensley's friends struggled Tuesday to comprehend what happened to him, how the smiling man who once owned a sports bar could have been executed by Islamic militants in Baghdad, a broken city he was trying to help put back together. Hensley's death was the second in consecutive days, following the beheading of his colleague, Eugene "Jack" Armstrong. Another co-worker -- Kenneth Bigley, a Briton who worked for the same company as the two slain men -- was still missing Tuesday as Hensley's friends grieved. All they could do was pray.
"The people over there that are trying to help are getting massacred," said Marty Cochran, who poured drinks more than a decade ago at Networks, the sports bar Hensley owned. "It makes no sense."
The awful announcement Tuesday that Hensley was gone came after days of wrenching pleas for his life by his wife. Pati Hensley, often displaying remarkable poise, became a familiar face on television news programs this week. She appeared on CNN, on ABC's "Good Morning America," anywhere she could get a forum.
Her plea was a simple one: She wanted to open a dialogue with her husband's captors. She wanted to let them know that something, somehow, could be worked out.
"We ask for your mercy in freeing Jack and his co-workers, so that they can continue to return home to their loving families," she said on CNN. "And it is your decision whether this happens."
While the drama played out with agonizing slowness, Hensley tried to shield her daughter, Sara, from the dire stakes, family friend Jake Haley said. On Tuesday, when all was lost, Hensley sat down with her daughter and told her everything, Haley said.
"The world has lost some exceptional individuals who truly cared about other people and cultures," Haley said Tuesday outside his friend's home. "We are at peace that they are with their Lord."
Behind Haley, five men and women stood in close formation. They locked arms and held hands as he spoke. The sad group stood in a shaken neighborhood. On the streets leading to Hensley's home, neighbors overwhelmed by a deluge of reporters placed signs on their front doors: "We have nothing to say."
Hensley planned to return to this neighborhood, where the houses are set back far off the street under tall pines and graceful oaks, in February. He had gone to Iraq to work for Gulf Supplies and Commercial Services, a construction company based in the United Arab Emirates. Pati Hensley told reporters that her husband assessed repair projects, making plans to stitch together battered museums and schools.
In his rural neighborhood, on the outskirts of Atlanta between Marietta and Kennesaw, he was known for his cordiality. One man, who said he had been asked by family members not to talk to the media, said of Hensley, "Wherever you were, if he saw you, he was always waving."
Hensley had roots in the Carolinas and Georgia. His brother, Ty, told the Rock Hill, S.C., Herald that Hensley attended the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and was a volunteer for the police rescue squad in Tega Cay, S.C. In Georgia, Hensley owned a sports bar in Austell, a town just west of Atlanta.
He left for Iraq from a home near the Civil War battlefield in Kennesaw, which took its name from the Cherokee word "Gah-nee-sah," for cemetery or burial ground. "He's the friend that everyone wants to have," Haley said. Surely, he said, his friend would have wanted people in this tranquil neighborhood to get on with their lives. On the cul-de-sac by Hensley's home, a bit of suburban bliss could already be heard: a little boy bouncing a basketball.
Roig-Franzia reported from Miami. Lasoff Levs is a special correspondent. Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.