February/March O.Henry 2012

Page 54

Jan Hensley’s Dark Miracles of Chance By Lee Zacharias


the longtime television voice for chiropractor Dr. Russell Cobb, Greensboro book collector Jan Hensley was so convincing people used to come up to him on the street and say, “Doc, I’ve got this pain. Can you help me?” Tall, lanky, crowned with a well-tended mane of white hair and dressed in one of his trademark black shirts, he’s a commanding presence. As an actor he’s played both God and the Devil, General Nathanael Greene and Lord Cornwallis, not to mention The Nutcracker’s Mother Ginger. A generation of young Greensboro ballerinas came out from under his stilts and big skirt. So naturally on that April day in 1988, when he ran down a hall after Eudora Welty and asked if he could take one more picture, the grande dame of Southern literature replied, “Of course.” Welty was in Greensboro for UNCG’s East Coast premier of The Trumpet of the Swan, a musical composition by Samuel Jones featuring lyrics from two of her stories. The night before the musical, Brenda Schleunes was directing Two by Eudora at Greensboro College, and she asked Jan, who ran a photography studio on Grove Street, to bring his camera in case Welty appeared. To Schleunes’ delight, Welty attended the entire performance, and afterward Jan shot pictures of her with the cast. To him it was a photo assignment, nothing more, until Schleunes asked Welty to autograph a book. As Welty left, “something just washed over me,” he says. He realized that he had been in the presence of greatness, had met the queen mother of Southern literature and failed to get a picture of her alone. That’s when he took off down the hall. Months later, after watching an interview with Welty on PBS, he wrote to ask if she would sign two pictures, one with the cast, which he intended to present to Schleunes, and the portrait for himself. In a handwritten letter she responded, “with pleasure.” The signed picture still hangs on his office wall. Before Jan met Eudora Welty, his book collecting was confined to Thomas Wolfe, an interest stemming from his days at Mars Hill Junior College and Wake Forest University, where he majored in theater. There, during a professional summer stock production of Look Homeward, Angel, he was cast as Luke, the character based on Wolfe’s brother Fred. In the Navy after college, having volunteered for office work, Jan found himself with time on his hands, and when his mother sent a newspaper article about Fred Wolfe and the Wolfe House in Asheville, he began reading Thomas Wolfe in the

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base library. He wrote to Fred Wolfe for advice on collecting his brother’s books. Fred had also served in the Navy, and they began corresponding. Jan’s parents were not collectors, though they were readers. He and his brother had grown up on the Hardy Boys, and though he disparages the poor bindings and the impermanence of those books as objects, any series begs collecting. He had the gene, and by the time he met Welty he owned a fair Wolfe collection. But when he watched her sign Schleunes’ book, he realized he’d been concentrating on a dead writer with an expensive signature and thought what a wonderful thing it would be to collect living North Carolina writers. His opportunity came in 1990 at the grand opening of the Center for the Creative Arts in Greensboro’s new Cultural Center. Having taught photography there, he was slated to give a demonstration for a photo class at the event, which was bringing acclaimed North Carolina writers Lee Smith, Robert Morgan and Sam Ragan for an author appearance. He purchased their books, then asked his wife Kay to get them signed, ostensibly because his role in the program made asking for signatures tricky but also, he confides, because he felt intimidated. Still, when he finished his demonstration, he went to the author section, where he took several photographs — his first of authors other than Welty — and came away realizing he’d tapped into a rich vein. From then on he never hesitated to ask for a signature or a picture, though his favorite shots occur when he just calls a name and the writer turns, unaware that he’s about to be photographed. Jan says writers are easy to photograph because they’re not intimidated by the flash. He likes photographing jazz musicians for the same reason: They’re used to the camera, and like writers, they’re accommodating. But it’s his photographs of authors, especially North Carolina authors, that are at the heart of his vision. He began collecting more writers’ books, getting signatures whenever he could, soon averaging 400 a year. Eventually he set up a system, a computer file that lists books and other items that need to be signed. Not until he obtains those signatures does he index the materials into the bibliographies he keeps for each of his authors. His family grew concerned that he was overextended. He was running a photography business, acting, teaching, working with the Thomas Wolfe Society, researching, scouting out books, attending readings. He made them a promise: He would not add any new authors, especially Greensboro’s Fred Chappell. Today Fred Chappell is his largest collection. He’s added numerous new authors. And The Art & Soul of Greensboro

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