The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, July 30, 2004


Carlisle Oral History Project: Howard Hensleigh . . .

Change is part of life, says Howard Hensleigh.

He should know, having experienced more changes in his 83 years than most of us will ever know in our lifetime. Now he and his wife Jan are on the brink of still another major change when, after 36 years in Carlisle, they'll move to Atlantic Beach, Florida.

Hensleigh's contributions to Carlisle are significant and enduring. In a recent interview with the Carlisle Oral History Project, we discussed his multi-faceted life, his accomplishments and his commitment to making Carlisle the "best of all possible towns."

Hensleigh in his West Street office. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

He wheels soundlessly into his office for our interview — a spinal cord injury 22 years ago has confined him to a wheelchair, but Hensleigh is still a vigorous man, a former military officer who continues to practice law, with a ready smile and an air of gentility. The story of his life is remarkable, with changes and challenges at every turn.

"I really think of myself as an Iowa farm boy," he starts out, "and that's why we sort of fit into Carlisle when we first came here." Change was part of his boyhood. He was born on October 29, 1920, in Blanchard, Iowa, where his father was the football coach. The family moved around — to Texas, Missouri, Kansas and back to Iowa. There Hensleigh graduated from the University of Iowa in 1943, at the height of World War II.

Hensleigh in his Parachute Infantry uniform in 1948. (Courtesy photo)


His ROTC training in college led him to join the Parachute Infantry, and his combat team was sent to Italy in the spring of 1944. He fought in the Rome-Arno campaign, parachuted into southern France, fought through the Battle of the Bulge and into Germany. "I was in five major battles in the European theater," he summarizes matter-of-factly. After the war, he entered law school at the University of Iowa, graduating in 1947. Hensleigh remained in the Army Reserves and the National Guard for 30 years, retiring in 1973.

For seven years he practiced law in Marshalltown and Traer, Iowa, and married Janice Pedersen on August 15, 1948, in Marshalltown. After a year of graduate studies in international law at Columbia University in 1954, he worked in the international law section of the Pentagon. From 1958 to 1960, he was the legal advisor to the U.S. Mission to NATO in Paris, where the Hensleighs' fourth child, Jonathan, was born, completing their family of two daughters and two sons. (Mosquito readers may remember reading about Jonathan, a screenwriter in Hollywood. Two of his better-known films are Armageddon and Jumanji. Jonathan and his wife, producer Gale Ann Hurd, have formed a production company in Hollywood.)

From D.C. to Carlisle

Hensleigh worked in the Pentagon and later the Treasury Department until January 1968, when "Raytheon asked me to be Assistant General Counsel for the Missile Systems Division in Bedford." He came north to work in Bedford while Jan and the children stayed in Washington, D.C. to finish the school year. When the family began looking for housing, "Jan decided she wanted to be in Concord. Our real estate lady thought Carlisle might be right for us, and we fell in love with it."

The Hensleighs first Carlisle address was on Woodland Road. "A day or two after we moved in, Fire Chief Waldo Wilson came to visit — he made us feel right at home. Our newspaper was delivered by the Police Chief [Herb Bates] when we first came!" Clearly, Carlisle — at that time still a farm community — was just the right fit for the Hensleighs. In fact, in the 1970s, he points out that Carlisle had to prove to the Mass. Agriculture Department that it was a farm community in order to get a low-interest loan to build the senior housing complex on Church Street.

The Hensleighs next bought a house at 575 West Street "that had some land with it. I was a part-time farmer and had some cattle there." Their next real estate venture was the old Congregational Church at the corner of School and Church Streets, which was "kind of falling down and no one would buy it. So Jan and I bought it and refurbished it." Longtime Carlisleans will remember that Jan owned an antiques shop there.

In September 1982, Hensleigh was, in his words, "kicked out of a tree by a chain saw," and the accident left him a paraplegic. "Jan fixed the church up for handicap living," he says, "and I had my office downstairs for a number of years. Then we built our house out here at 479 West Street."

School Committee

Once he settled in Carlisle, it didn't take long for Howard Hensleigh to get involved in town government. "This was the first town we'd ever lived in that has what I call an absolute democracy," he reflects. "Everything starts at Town Meeting and the individual voter is like the legislature." The Hensleighs went to their first Town Caucus and saw people nominated to serve on town boards. Later, he was asked to be on the Personnel Board and the Celebrations Committee. (He was named Most Honored Citizen in 1986, and is quick to point out that he was no longer on the Celebrations Committee, which chooses the honoree!)

In 1973, he was elected to the Carlisle School Committee, where his steady leadership for three years brought improvements in the school system and strengthened the town. "At that time Carlisle was a member of Union 47," Hensleigh explains. "We had one superintendent whose office was in Acton and he supervised four towns — Carlisle, Harvard, Stow and Bolton. We had about 600 kids in school and a number of parents wanted the school to be improved. I went on the committee with the idea that I would do my best to have our own superintendent and our own administration." Some committee members questioned whether the town could handle its own finances, so Hensleigh met with the town treasurer, Nancy Koerner, and town accountant Waldo Wilson, who both assured him that Carlisle could manage on its own. Ultimately, the state agreed that Carlisle should have its own superintendent, although it then tried to encourage the town to join forces with Concord from kindergarten to grade 12. Hensleigh says, "I persuaded them that it would take several years for both Concord and Carlisle Town Meetings to agree on a vote to combine the schools," and the state backed off.

"One of the things I'm really proud of is that we bought the Banta-Davis Land and saved it for town use," says Hensleigh, referring to the town's acquisition of the land while he was a member of the School Committee. It started with Green Cemetery's need for more land for expansion and the Selectmen's failure to buy adjoining land from its owner, Mrs. Davis. "She had been a schoolteacher," says Hensleigh, and the Selectmen asked the School Committee to negotiate a purchase of the land for the school that would result in more land for the cemetery. "So I called up Mrs. Davis and she was delighted to sell her land to the school, and we got it for about $100,000. The cemetery got its expansion land and the town got what became the Banta-Davis Land." (Banta was the name of Mrs. Davis's daughter.)

Hensleigh's negotiating skills also led to another land expansion victory for the town. "Spalding Field was just barely big enough for a softball field," he explains. "Jack Shay was on the School Committee — he'd been an athlete at Notre Dame — and he wanted to expand Spalding Field. The Conservation Commission turned us down for fear of a major flood .... So Jack and I went to the state. He did the engineering work and I did the legal work, and ultimately the state agreed with us and overruled our ConsCom." The expansion came at virtually no cost because Roger Davis, head of the Department of Public Works (DPW) and father of our current head, Gary Davis, arranged for contractors working in the area to dump their fill at the field. "We put in some topsoil and eventually got the grass to grow!" says Hensleigh.

Board of Selectmen

Howard Hensleigh joined Nancy Penhune and Al Peckham on the Board of Selectmen from 1977 to 1980, an eventful time in Carlisle. For example, in 1977 came the redistricting crisis. The state legislature had decided that Carlisle should join Chelmsford's district, although the town had been part of Concord for many years. Hensleigh recalls going to a hearing at the State House in Boston one evening when Carlisle's challenge to the redistricting plan was scheduled. "There were lots of items on the agenda," he says, "and little Carlisle got bounced further and further down the agenda by the bigger towns. Finally, we were heard at ten minutes to midnight! Pete Simonds, our moderator, did a marvelous job. He said, 'We want to thank the committee. We will be the only town in the state that's been granted a two-day hearing!' Everybody laughed, and we went on from there with our dog-and-pony show. We convinced them to leave our district alone. After a few years, we were redistricted anyway, and nobody made a fuss about it."

Then there was the deplorable DPW situation. "We had an urgent need for a place for the DPW — they were in sheds, just awful things, where the police station is now. They had a huge pile of salt for the wintertime; it was covered with plastic, the wind would blow the plastic off and the salt would leach into the ground." Finally, after many meetings, three alternate sites were proposed by the Selectmen and presented at a June 1979 Town Meeting. Hensleigh recommended a workable voting scheme and ultimately Sly Fox Farm on Morse Road emerged as the winning and present site.

Then Hensleigh shares one of his favorite stories from his Selectman days: on his way to work one morning, he met Dick Hale, who lived at the intersection of Acton and West Streets. "Howard," he said, "this triangle [at the intersection] is a mess. People drive through it all the time. If you'd put some big stones here to prevent people from driving through, Betty and I will put in some plantings and take care of it." Hensleigh immediately found DPW head Roger Davis and asked him to take some large stones to the triangle."Before the sun went down, the stones were there," Hensleigh reports with satisfaction. "Heidi Harring and her husband, who live in that house, are doing a great job taking care of that intersection today, carrying on where Dick and Betty left off."

This vignette reflects the best of small-town life that Howard Hensleigh appreciates so well — speedy problem-solving at the personal level and active volunteerism, all for the good of the community. Today, regretfully, complex state-imposed regulations stand in the way of simple solutions, and moving stones to an intersection would likely require town board permissions and public hearings. Hensleigh is outspoken in his criticism of the state legislature that "makes laws and regulations that cost a large amount of money and then they don't fund it. Much of the legislation is for Boston and larger cities and doesn't fit Carlisle very well."

Of town boards and Town Meetings

After his long experience in town government, Hensleigh is critical of present-day town boards: "I think in Carlisle people get on boards and throw their weight around. I was distressed that Jonathan Sachs, who rebuilt a deteriorating dam on a pond on his property, was fined $2,500 by the ConsCom as he was leaving town because he hadn't come to them. [Sachs had made a minor change in his original plan to restore the dam, but failed to seek ConsCom approval for the change.] I think that's a disgrace."

On the other hand, he takes pleasure in recalling the unprecedented cooperation between Carlisle Republicans and Democrats on the issue of polling hours. "In 1973, Bonnie and Gabor Miskolczy were chairmen of the Democratic Town Committee and Jan and I were chairmen of the Republican Town Committee. The polls had always opened at 10 a.m., which meant that some people who worked outside town didn't get to vote. We thought the polls should open at 7 a.m. There was opposition by Selectman Dan Bickford and Town Clerk Ellie Cochran, but at Town Meeting, with the two [political] committees working together, it was no contest. There are ways of handling things in town that bring people together instead of splitting them apart." He adds, "I think it's particularly bad when people are concerned about how they vote in Town Meeting for fear of retaliation. We used to always be concerned about the assessors for fear they would raise our taxes!"

Citing the U.S.A. Patriot Act that came before last spring's Town Meeting, Hensleigh believes that national politics have no place at Town Meeting. "At Town Meeting, people are busy and you want to do town business. What the Carlisle Board of Selectmen tells people in Washington is not going to balance things, and it wastes a tremendous amount of time for Town Meeting voters who are there to do town business."

Looking ahead

Hensleigh left Raytheon in 1991 to practice law in Carlisle, specializing in estate planning and real estate matters. Now the Hensleighs are packing up, preparing for their August 18 move to Florida. Medical concerns are taking them away from Carlisle: "I've lived 'til I'm 83, which is longer than most paraplegics live," Hensleigh observes quietly, "and I've had various medical problems. Jan had a severe strep infection in her back which has affected her seriously, so with our physical limitations, we felt we needed a health-care backup. We'll go into an independent living situation in Fleet Landing in Atlantic Beach, near Jacksonville."

Yes, change is part of life — one's own life and in the life of the town — and must be accepted. Hensleigh has accepted the changes in his life with courage, dignity, humor and clear-eyed judgment. He and Jan will be missed, but Carlisle is immeasurably richer because Howard Hensleigh, the Iowa farm boy, chose to make it his home.

Townspeople invited to Hensleigh reception

Please come on Sunday, August 8 at 4 p.m. to wish Jan and Howard Hensleigh the very best on their new adventure, and to thank them for their valuable contributions to the town of Carlisle. The reception will be held in the Clark Room at the Carlisle Town Hall.

The Hensleighs are looking forward to enjoying the Florida sunshine in their new retirement community in Jacksonville, Florida as of mid-August.

Hensleigh prepares to be dunked at a past Old Home Day. (Courtesy photo)

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito