The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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John Henley Oral History Interviews

Two life history interviews conducted by Chris Petersen.

December 22, 2014


Elizabeth Artis Watts Henley was born in Bellingham, Washington in 1912. A gifted writer who was interested in poetry at an early age, Henley earned degrees from Bellingham Normal School and the University of Washington, teaching at the latter from 1934-1940. During this time, Henley became active with the American Communist Party. She also developed a reputation as a poet of national consequence, publishing her verse in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and Ladies Home Journal among other publications. In 1940, she married Preston Henley, a business executive, and from 1941 to 1945, the family lived in New York City. The Henleys relocated to Boise, Idaho following the conclusion of World War II and, in 1951, the family settled in Portland.

As the atmosphere surrounding communism in the United States worsened during the 1950s, Henley became fearful that her past political activities might result in negative repercussions for herself and her family. In 1956, she and her husband divorced, and Elizabeth committed herself into the Oregon State Penitentiary for the Criminally Insane. She remained there for more than two years before securing her release, a turn of events that came about in part because of petitions made to Governor Mark Hatfield by members of the Oregon poetry community.

In 1959, Henley joined the English faculty at Oregon State College, where she was assigned to teach English composition to remedial students, including many student athletes. She remained on staff until her retirement in 1975, a time period during which she continued to publish her poetry while also developing innovative teaching curricula, including a course devoted to children's literature. She passed away in Corvallis in 1981.

One of Elizabeth's sons, John Van Fleet Henley, was born in Portland in 1951. John was introduced to the rudiments of book scouting while a boy, and continued to pursue the purchase and resale of books through his years as a Drama student at Southern Oregon College. In 1975, while an employee at the Portland State University Bookstore, Henley made the acquaintance of Walter Powell, who had recently opened a small bookstore in downtown Portland. Henley was subsequently hired to manage the store and remained on staff until 1990, during which time he founded the store's Rare Books Department and wrote many of the policies that continue to govern operations at Powell's today.

Following his departure from Powell's, Henley joined the staff at Great Northwest bookstore, where he remained for two decades. Today, he works as an independent appraiser of rare books and manuscripts. With his wife, Kathy, Henley is also active in the Oregon autism community, a pursuit that arose out of the couple's experiences raising their autistic son.