By Cecily Markland
In the past five years, she opened a bookstore, traveled across the country and moved from Apache Junction to Mesa; she has given out nearly 200 copies of the Book of Mormon, spoken at firesides, taken in several friends and family members, performed countless acts of service and has been the subject of nationwide media coverage—all since she turned 85.
“And, I’m not done yet,” said Helen Spencer Schlie, of the Udall Ward, Mesa Stake, who turned 90 on August 24.
Though her accomplishments include a long list of everything from storeowner to caregiver, from painter to choir director, to poetess and more—and though she finds pleasure and great joy in every day she lives—she isn’t ready to “rest on her laurels.”
“I feel I want to accomplish more, to wrap up everything I’ve been dreaming of doing,” she said.
Somewhat of an icon in the East Valley, she’s known for her ready smile, quick wit and, always, her interest in other people and their stories.
Helen’s own story started on a farm in Michigan, 35 miles from Lake Huron. The oldest of seven, she had five sisters and one brother.
She learned early on to love education. “We had a two-room school, with five grades in the same room. It was a wonderful system as we got to hear all five levels of each subject.”
Music also became an important part of Helen’s life. All through junior high and high school, she played the piano and clarinet and sang in the school chorus and various church choirs.
At 17, she married Elvin Wagner and, in 1941, they had a daughter they named Alnita. Their marriage ended in divorce shortly after—at a time when World War II, had already altered the way of life across the nation.
For her, that meant going to work at National Twist Drill and Tool, and, later, at GM, inspecting Army trucks as they came off the assembly line. After the War, she opened a bakery, then a millinery shop, and worked for J. C. Penny Company.
In 1955, she married Walt Schlie, a World War I veteran.
“Walt was a wonderful man. He loved to dance and he was a wonderful stepfather to Alnita,” Helen said.
Helen joined the LDS Church in 1961, after a trip to Salt Lake City’s Temple Square a few years prior, where, Helen said, “I got answers to all the questions I’d had for so many years.” In 1962, Walt retired and they traveled across the country and up the west coast before ending up in Mesa.
Though the couple opened an LDS bookstore near the Temple in Mesa, it would be five years later before Walt joined the Church. They ran the bookstore together until 1990, when Walt’s health and an employee’s embezzlement of funds forced them to close the store.
During that time, they shared with many the opportunity to hold and read from an original copy of the Book of Mormon someone had sold to them. Years later, after learning that the Church wasn’t interested in having the Book donated to them, Helen hit upon the idea of selling individual pages, mounted on a wooden stand, between museum-quality glass. “The book had already done so much good and here was one more way to build testimonies and to share it,” she said.
That book captured national news last year when it was stolen from Helen’s Old and Rare Bookstore—the store she opened two years ago in the same spot where she and Walt first started. It was later recovered.
Now, as she enters her 10th decade of life, Helen plans to continue to pursue her dreams, including an ice cream business that would provide missionary funds, a line of jewelry and another book of poetry. She particularly wants to continue sharing her Book of Mormon pages, now framed with apple wood she obtained from the farm where Joseph Smith was raised.
Most of all, she will continue to “enjoy the people in my life,” she said. ”People are so wonderful. Life is so wonderful. I just love every minute of it.”
Helen’s Old and Rare Bookstore, at 121 S Mesa Drive, can be reached by calling 480-471-8998.