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LIKE A PICTURE FROZEN IN TIME/How the Henley Family and Western Auto have Steadily Served the Area for Generations

By Scott Jester, 07/1/22 9:46 PM

It’s a store that seemingly has lived FOREVER in the heart of downtown Hope.

The sign is old and the lettering faded, but that sign is all so familiar to us who have grown up in this town with it in the background.

As familiar as the sign, so is the family name right below it.

Henley Inc.

And it’s looked that way since 1963. That’s 59 years for anyone doing the math.

Western Auto has quietly served as an anchor store, for anyone in need of appliances, household items, hardware, gardening & lawn needs, and even toys for the kids.

If you are in need of an easy smile or maybe some country advice, that’s no problem either. However, you are guaranteed the sly humor of John, Perry Jr. or Jim Henley, carrying on a business that has earned more than respect from their peers in the community.

As a customer, it’s similar to talking to a cousin when spending time, back in time, inside the store.

DID YOU KNOW that before Western Auto was Western Auto, part of the current building served as a movie theater? Originally opened as the Grand Theatre in 1920, ownership changed hands and the name changed to the Rialto in 1930. Sadly, she burned in 1957.

Hope, Arkansas had a bustling downtown for many years with plenty of passenger railroad service going east and west.

When those passengers stepped off the train and on to the platform here, they were greeted by hotels, cafes, and entertainment within walking distance from the depot. So, it’s no surprise, that a couple of theaters, including the Rialto, served the comers and goers in our town.

This particular branch of the Henley family tree was headed by Perry Sr. and his wife Margaret Schulte Henley. Daddy was from Reader, Arkansas near Prescott and she, from Huron, South Dakota. A daughter of a full-blooded Germans.

“Daddy was in the army and Margaret’s brother was in the army with him,” said second oldest son John recently from behind the well-worn service desk at the store.

“Her brother told daddy about his sister back at home, so he started corresponding with her and when he got out of the army, he came home and they married.

With that, the Henley family humbly began setting down deep roots in Hope beginning in 1948.
And, soon followed five terrific children. Paul, John, Perry Jr., Susan, and Jim.

Folks reading this story, surely have been acquainted with, or worked with, or were associated with one of these Henleys during their lifetime in this area.

Their quiet depth of character and genuine kindness is sprinkled with a sense of humor from each of them which is hard to find most anywhere.

Each are multi-talented in their own way, and each are leaving their mark on this city.

Heck, John Henley, served as this writer’s referee during many peewee league football games in the early 1970’s. He spent extra time assisting his brother, Paul, who would later be known as long-time Fair Park Director.

The time spent with both helped shape many young kids’ lives down at that park. Including mine.

Paul wore many hats for the city and surrounding area and wasn’t involved in the downtown business day-to-day. He is now still retiring from his long tenures.

“He is still doing as much as he used to,” stated John with a grin. “Except now he’s a “volunteer” and doesn’t get paid for it.”

The character building began early.

“Daddy was a family man from the get-go,” John commented. “When we kids were younger, we didn’t have a lot, but we didn’t know it.

“We never did without.”

How did Perry Sr become the first face behind Western Auto?

“Daddy originally worked for Lehman’s Home Center. His sister was Peggy Lehman, so he was working for them.

“He later moved on from Lehman’s and bought this place in 1963.”

After graduation from UCA, the young John returned home, but not into to the family business.

“I came back and worked for a gentleman named David Gilbert, who was a production control manager at Champion Parts, which was named Standard Automotive back then,” Henley recounts.

“I worked there a couple of years, then also served as Chamber of Commerce Director for a couple of years, but Daddy just needed more help and so I resigned in 1975 and came to work for him.”

And, the rest, they say, is now history. A history that was with not a lot of fanfare or blazing lights, but steady family service to the surrounding area.

“We did just what we had to do,” John concludes.

Behind every good business is a do-it-all staff person, who can answer phone calls while signing off on a delivery invoice, and working with a customer at the counter. All with a pleasant smile and affectious demeanor.

That’s going to be Sandy Davis.

Anyone who has had dealings with Western Auto has been greeted by Sandy for many years. She, too, holds many of the same friendly qualities as the Henley boys and is now the companion to John, who had lost his dear wife of 41 years, Sharon, to illness.

“Sandy introduced my wife to me originally,” Henley stated. “Sharon and Sandy were very close.

“Sandy and her kids had gone to live with her husband at the time in Saudi Arabia where he worked.

“We would get phone calls in the middle of the night with Sandy asking to talk with Sharon,” he says with a laugh.

“Sandy has been here almost 20 years and the odd part about this is Sandy and I are now an “item,”” John says almost sheepishly.

“It’s funny, she remarked just last week that ‘I bet you never saw this coming with you and me standing in your own kitchen making jelly and jam with me’.

“We are now jelly and jam makers,” he laughs.

Theirs was a match made in a downtown home center. On God’s good time.

John doesn’t have future plans for the store since he’s likely the last Henley who will lock the place for the last time one day.

For many folks of his age look at coming to the same place to work as therapeutic. Relying on a steady place to wake up and go to as they reach retirement age and the times beyond.

Not so for John Henley, since he’s been unlocking the door for more than 40 years.

“I’ve got plenty of places I can wake up and go to besides here,” as Henley laughs at the thought. “I can go to the coffee shop or Sheba’s or somewhere else. I’ve got plenty of places to go to,” he concludes with a wry smile.

What does this town called Hope mean to Henley?

“It’s a whole family thing,” as John quickly turns more serious. “At the time both my mom and dad got sick, and Dad, went first, all five kids had achieved a college educations, and all of us were ready to be there in 10 minutes if we got a call from the hospital.

“We’ve always been local.”

It may be a little old and worn now, but that building and the family who continues to operate it, mean so much more than that. It’s a living connection to a time that not all have forgotten.

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