By Len Lear
“I find myself on my back in some soft meadow
looking up at a continent of fluffy whites
tumbling in an industrial strength dryer,
playing cat and mouse with the sun.”
From William Hengst’s poem, “You Move in All Directions”
As a young city planner in Philadelphia with a B.A. degree from Dartmouth College in 1961 and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, William Hengst, a Mt. Airy resident for the past 26 years, was no more like a creative writer than lightning is like a lightning bug. (Hengst’s doctoral dissertation examined the building development approval process and was titled “Town Builders & Their Hosts.”)
Now 78, the Cleveland, Ohio, native started with the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, where he worked as a project manager for six years. Then he worked for 20 years for various planning and environmental consulting firms around Philadelphia, where he wrote a blizzard of reports and later co-authored several articles published in the Urban Land Institute’s magazine.
But Bill became increasingly frustrated at work because “it took what seemed like a long time to see results, especially in the government work because of bureaucracy and red tape. I learned from experience that I preferred working in the private sector because things got done more quickly.
“As much as I enjoyed putting on a necktie and going to work in an office every day, though, by the time I reached my 50s, I wanted something different, so I started doing some free-lance journalism.”
It had taken nine years for Hengst to earn his Ph.D., which taught him that
“I can achieve anything in my life that I set my heart and mind to.” Hengst began writing for the Chestnut Hill Local and other local publications — Montgomery Newspapers, Mt. Airy Times-Express, several business magazines and Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Green Scene magazine.
“Around this time I joined the Friends of the Wissahickon’s board of directors and started their newsletter, of which I served as editor for 10 years. I also began serious gardening work with a few private clients of my own.”
As the gardens blossomed, so did Hengst. After a couple of years on his own, Bill started Green Team Gardeners with a gardener friend. They quickly grew it into a business with 40-60 clients in and around Philadelphia, mostly residential gardens. They installed gardens and maintained gardens. “I loved the work,” Bill said. “Five days a week outdoors getting my hands dirty in the soil and working up a sweat while completing projects. I left Green Team when I turned 65 and continued to garden with my own clients for another 10 years.”
Hengst is quite candid about his career as a city planner. When asked about his most significant city planning accomplishment, he replied, “I always enjoyed accomplishing whatever I was assigned to do or write. Were these significant accomplishments? Yes for me and perhaps for whomever I was working for at the time. But really significant? Probably not.”
Hengst, who worked privately with a local poet for a while, attended several poetry workshops and joined a four-month poetry class at Bucks County Community College, now writes both poetry and short stories. One of his stories received an honorable mention award in 2011 from Glimmer Train magazine. His poems have appeared in over a dozen journals, and they have been published in two books, “Runaway Freight” and “Yard Man.” He also has a collection of eight short stories that he would like to get published.
“Runaway Freight: New & Selected Poems,” published last year by Aldrich Press, is a memoir in poems, 74 pages, about Bill’s life from childhood to his 70s. What is the significance of the “Runaway Freight” title? “In my childhood and early youth, I often felt held back, inhibited really; I was ‘buttoned up tight,’ as I write in the poem ‘My Feet Always Carried Me.’ Sometimes I wanted to run away from home … Trains on the move bring me exhilaration.”
Hengst, who has always been single but “has enjoyed relationships and friendships with a number of women over the years,” thoroughly enjoys Mt. Airy because “I live close to the Wissahickon and to Weavers Way, which are a big part of the quality of life here. I have good neighbors, but I don’t get into the Wissahickon now due to some walking issues. I push a walker or use a cane.”
On Friday, Sept. 15, 6 to 8 p.m., Hengst will read poems from “Runaway Freight” at Weavers Way’s Mercantile, 542 Carpenter Lane. The event will include an “open mic” for those in the audience who want to read a poem or two. Refreshments will be provided by Weavers Way Co-op. On Thursday, Oct. 5, Bill will be reading at Farley’s Bookshop at 44 S. Main St. in New Hope, starting at 7 pm.
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