A ‘Simple Gift’ : 91-Year-Old Martinsville Resident Publishes Her First Book

By Amie Knowles

December 16, 2020

Lost for decades, a visit to Martinsville helped Clark’s grandkids find the book.

MARTINSVILLE – “I have always loved to write, but this happened unexpectedly,” said 91-year-old Martinsville author Helen Clark Hensley.

In just a few days, she’ll receive the first published copy of a book that she wrote 70 years ago.

As the decades went by she forgot the book entirely. That is, until her grandkids recently found a jewelry box containing the manuscript.

In 1951, Hensley was a University of Richmond graduate. She moved back home and worked as a teacher in Winchester, Kentucky. As the holidays quickly approached, Hensley’s mother requested a last-minute holiday favor.

“My mother asked at Christmas that year if I would write a Christmas story for her music club,” Hensley said.

The 27-year-old had plenty on her plate at the time. On top of teaching and working at the local church, Hensley also recently fell in love and became engaged to her late husband, David “Dick” Hensley. However, she readily agreed.

“It needed to be done pretty quickly, so I sat down and started,” Hensley said. “I’m trying to remember if I ever got up before I finished.”

Hensley presented her mother with the poem she wrote, called “His Own Simple Gift.” The music club enjoyed the creative piece, but then the season ended and it was forgotten. Hensley and Dick married and the couple moved away. The poem eventually wound up in the secret sleeve of a jewelry box Dick gifted Hensley. And that’s where it sat for over 60 years.

A Hidden Gem in Martinsville

When Hensley’s grandchildren visited her in September, they discovered the jewelry box. Hensley opened the box and remembered the secret pocket.

“I opened it for something and there it was,” Helsley said.

She looked inside, and for the first time in six decades came face to face with her original typewritten, faded words from 69 years prior.

“My daughter was here at the time. I said, ‘Did I ever read this to you?’ She said, ‘No,’” Hensley said. “It had been there all those years. I had totally, actually forgotten about it.”

Hensley’s daughter, author Mary Helen Hensley, read the poem to her children. Much to Hensley’s excitement, they loved it.

“It just evolved from there,” Hensley said.

With the expertise of her daughter, Hensley published her first book only four months after the manuscript’s discovery. She was 91 when she published her own book.

This is not the first time Hensley has seen her name in a book. A few years ago, Irish author Patricia Scanlan asked her to write a chapter in a book on grief and healing. In Bringing Life to Death, Hensley wrote about losing her husband of 60 years.

“I just felt quite honored to have been asked,” Hensley said. “I don’t know if you call that ‘published’ or not, but a chapter. And now, a first at 91.”

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The Book

The story Hensley wrote 69 years ago still applies to readers today.

“It just fit in so perfectly with today and with our situations nationally, internationally,” Hensley said. “It just seemed that it was written for today, almost, when I pulled it out.”

The timeless tale follows a young protagonist as he embarks on a meaningful holiday journey.

“’True Christmas Spirit’ was actually the subtitle. It was about a boy who wanted desperately to give the only gift he had, the only thing he could afford,” Hensley said. “He was trying to offer his gift to the people of his town and was just totally put away at every door.”

While the protagonist initially struggled, he eventually came to the realization that material objects aren’t what make the Christmas season merry and bright.

“It was the importance of the gifts that people have to give at Christmas and the fact that the most special ones are from the heart,” Hensley said. “Every person, every color, everyone is so very special and everyone has a gift of some kind.”

Hensley also praised the work of artist Anna Boles, who illustrated the book. Hensley called her style “breathtaking.”

“She did [the illustrations] straight from the heart. They are just so inspired. Each illustration is so beautiful,” Hensley said. “The book would be great without even any words. They’re beautiful, just beautiful.”

Just in Time for Christmas

Her friends and family were encouraging when they read the book, according to Hensley.

“They just have been so kind and gracious,” Hensley said.

She now looks forward to people reading the story, and to receiving its message of selflessness during the holiday season.

“It is just a simple story, a very simple story of a boy who had nothing to give, except something of his own, himself. He could give himself. Everyone can give something, even a smile,” Hensley said. “Everyone has a gift of some kind. That’s what I’m hoping they will realize. No gift is too small to make a huge difference.”

As Christmas approaches, the book will hit shelves. Unfortunately, a slight delay at the warehouse slowed the initial shipment, but it’ll be in consumer’s hands before the big day. Like many other towns across Virginia, COVID has impacted how Martinsville residents celebrate the holidays.

“His Own Simple Gift” is currently available online in Ireland, the United Kingdom and Europe. In the United States, people may place orders online and in-store for “His Own Simple Gift” through Books and Crannies, located at 50 E. Church St, Suite 4 in Martinsville.

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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