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Published: Wednesday, 11/12/2008

Past Toledo modeling teacher, actress marks 100th birthday

BY JULIE WEIDNER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Helen McHenry-Wagner Helen McHenry-Wagner
NOT BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

She was born Helen Pichurko in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Nov. 3, 1908. One hundred years later, in the company of family and many friends, Helen McHenry-Wagner celebrated her birthday.

Her Polish immigrant parents bought a five-acre farm just west of Toledo when she was 9 years old. She attended a one-room schoolhouse until she was old enough to go to high school.

She considered herself lucky - most girls her age had to stay home to help on the farm, but her father wanted her to go to high school. Helen would get up early, catch the train at Reynolds Corners, transfer to the trolley at Hawley Street, and still have about a half-mile walk to Libbey High School.

A good student and an avid reader, she recalled being punished for whispering in class. She was told to write on the blackboard while her classmates competed in athletic events outside. The principal came looking for her and was upset with the teacher for keeping her inside.

She said: "Don't you know Helen is the best runner we have?"

Helen participated and took first place. "I was so fast, I fell down during the race, got back up and kept running, and still came in first," she said.

She studied drama while at Libbey and decided to be an actress.

Relatives of a close friend had a traveling show and invited her to come along. It was difficult to convince her mother to let her go, but "My mother gave me $5, and told me to be a good girl."

She had learned the Charleston, and she entertained the audience during the show's intermissions.

She then went to New York, arriving with $7 in her pocket.

Times were tough, but she got a job at Coney Island: pretending to be electrocuted and living to tell about it.

She met her first husband, Leonidus Wesley Smith, in Roanoke, Va., in 1927. "I knew when I first saw him that I was going to marry him," she said.

After returning to Toledo when her grandmother became gravely ill, she joined the Toledo Repertoire Little Theatre Group, performing lead roles in many productions.

She divorced, and returned to New York, where she worked for a pioneer television station.

After graduating from the Barbizon School of Modeling, she brought the skills she learned in the big city to Toledo.

She married Harold I. McHenry, Jr., a discharged Navy chief petty officer, and opened the McHenry Model School in a studio apartment on Madison Avenue across from the library.

In the 1960s, she moved her business to California, where she continued to perform. Her friend Bob Johnson, who helped Mrs. McHenry-Wagner plan her birthday party at her home in Fredericka Manor in Chula Vista, said she "has many wonderful memories of her many forays on the stages and behind the scenes for several major productions."

Mrs. McHenry-Wagner keeps her memories alive in many photo albums and scrapbooks. A birthday dinner dance was held in her honor yesterday.



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