Longtime local card player makes her mark

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Helen Hensleigh smiles during a bridge game on Monday at the Flathead Valley Bridge Club in Kalispell. Hensleigh, who will be turning 99 later this year, is being honored by Prestige Assisted Living for her commitment to bridge. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Roughly 70 years ago, Helen Hensleigh had a decision to make: find another place to live or learn how to play bridge.

She was in her early 20s and just moved to Kalispell to be close to her brother. There was an apartment in town in her price range but it came with a condition.

“The landlord said, ‘you can live here if you learn how to play bridge — I’m trying to get my wife into it and we need a fourth.’ I figured, I didn’t know anyone, I wasn’t dating — I could do that,” Hensleigh said.

Now approaching her 99th birthday, Hensleigh still plays the game that scored her housing roughly seven decades ago.

She’s at the bridge club she began in 1955 three days a week, five hours a day. She hasn’t missed a day for three years and she’s quick to point out if she “hadn’t been sick that week,” the record would be longer.

“My name is synonymous with bridge,” Hensleigh said. “It’s a mental game, it reaches out. I’d like to convert you to the game, too.”

This week, Hensleigh will share some of her experience of life, love and bridge in the Flathead with other residents at Prestige Assisted Living’s monthly “Celebrate Your Neighbor.” She said maybe she can win more people over to the game at the event.

HENSLEIGH grew up on a farm 11 miles south of the Canadian border. Her parents, immigrants from Austria-Hungary, had played Whist her entire childhood. Like bridge, Whist uses a standard 52-card deck and is a game about numbers.

The family was poor. Her parents picked land out West as part of the Homestead Act of 1862.

Days were spent in the fields and nights were spent around the kitchen table with a deck of cards.

“I remember hearing my parents laughing each night — it was a simple card game, and I wanted to love it too,” Hensleigh said.

Instead, she stumbled into bridge.

In the game, four players paired two against two try to make good on their prediction, known as a contract, on how many tricks they can win in a round.

It’s addictive, Hensleigh said.

“I’m no scholar, it just takes a little bit of math,” she said.

For a long time, Hensleigh’s passion in the Flathead was winning the game. But when a proposed Polson dam threatened to put the city of Kalispell underwater, she paused her playing days to join the effort to protect the valley’s future.

During that time, she got a job, fell in love with a quiet man and married him at age 25.

For a while, she balanced work with her new family.

But by their second child, she decided it was time to be a full-time mom — and night-time bridge organizer.

The club began with two ladies. Then Hensleigh made a deal.

“I told them, ‘if you get your husbands to come and play with us, I’ll make apple pie,” she said.

Though she only made pie once, it worked.

Soon, the Flathead Valley duplicate bridge players group grew too large to hold games in her home.

In November 2012, an anonymous donor pledged to give the bridge club $350,000 as seed money if it became a nonprofit. A new building followed the promise.

Today, Hensleigh said there are more than 100 members in the club. There are eight to 12 tables of bridge games unfolding each day, she said.

“This is my greatest love — of course other than my husband and family — I’m so lucky to have found it,” she said. “Good Lord willing, I’ll be playing it if I live to be 200.”

Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at khoughton@dailyinterlake.com.

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