Host of Hannibal: A Tribute To Henry Sweets

[Editor’s Note: Henry Sweets, longtime director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, announced earlier this month that he would be stepping down at the end of 2019.] 

Any semi-serious enthusiast of Mark Twain has likely crossed path with the ever-accessible Henry Sweets. His steadfast presence at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum has provided a hospitable welcome for any and all seeking information about Samuel Clemens. Henry did not come to Mark Twain in the traditional way, but then, who has?

Henry Sweets (right) with Jacques Cousteau

His initial academic endeavors offered no hint of his subsequent 42-year career at the boyhood home. Henry grew up in Hannibal and graduated from Hannibal High School before earning a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1971 and a master’s degree in education in 1973. Henry taught high school science for two years in New Jersey and another two years in Illinois before taking an M.A. in American History and Museum Studies from the University of Delaware in 1978, leading to his appointment at the boyhood home in January 1978. 

In the course of the next 42 years, Henry personally welcomed station wagons full of families, at least three generations of schoolteachers, hopeful “descendants” of Sam Clemens, innumerable Twain scholars, hundreds of journalists, and a respectable number of celebrities and politicians. In addition to hosting President Jimmy Carter, First Lady Rosalyn Carter, and their daughter Amy, Henry welcomed the Prince of Monaco, a few U.S. Senators, and the occasional Governor of Missouri. Hal Holbrook, Jacques Cousteau, and Brad Paisley are just a handful of names Henry can drop as having welcomed to Hannibal. Perhaps one of his most memorable visitors was Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentine writer. Borges’s wish was to touch the Mississippi River in Hannibal. Henry assisted and would later recount the grateful writer shed tears in that moment.


Henry Sweets helps 83-year-old Jorge Luis Borges touch Mark Twain’s Mississippi River

In the four decades Henry has served the boyhood home, the museum expanded to include eight properties, updated its historical message for accuracy, and focused on scholarly outreach, most notably the weeklong teacher workshops offered each summer and the quadrennial Clemens Conference that welcomes scholars from around the globe. In 1982, Henry began compiling The Fence Painter, the museum publication he has edited since. He has traveled considerably to lecture on Twain and contributed two chapters to Mark Twain and Youth: Studies in His Life and Writings, edited by Kevin Mac Donell and Kent Rasmussen. The museum has done its part to be a good neighbor, offering free admission to Hannibal residents and hosting free summer outdoor concerts for more than a decade. The museum also took the Tom & Becky ambassador program under its wing.

Life at the museum is not all glamour. Henry has warded off contrary would-be Twain impersonators and dealt with his share of confused tourists asking such questions as, “Where is Mark Twain buried today?” (The answer, of course, is Elmira.) He is just as likely to be found installing an exhibit as carrying a plunger into a restroom. But if you know Henry, that should come as no surprise. He is never heard saying, “That’s not my job.” He rolls up his sleeves and does what needs to be done.

Everyone has their own story of meeting Henry for the first time, which usually includes descriptors like “knowledgeable,” “friendly,” and “helpful.” I first met Henry in 1996 when I was planning a Mark Twain summer program for 4th and 5th grade students. I called the museum, and Henry himself answered the phone. I explained I was coming to Hannibal in a few weeks and asked if we could meet. When I told him what day I was arriving, he responded, “Well, my wife’s having a yard sale that day, but I’ll give you my home phone number. Give me a call when you get in, and I’ll come meet you.” That gracious and generous response had a far-reaching impact on my own life. Henry drove me all over Hannibal that day showing me places I would have certainly missed. Having since had the privilege of knowing him and working alongside him, I can honestly say that he treated me with the same respect and kindness that he shows to actual celebrities. Henry is simply a nice guy.

Serving as director and curator of a museum consumes time and energy, yet Henry managed to hold a seat on the Hannibal School Board from 1992 to 2010 and play in the same softball league for 30+ years. For years, his hobby has been stamp collecting. A member of the American Philatelic Society, Henry is no stranger at stamp collecting conferences and has been an invited speaker at the annual United Postmasters of America meeting.

Balancing scholarship, historic preservation, and tourism (which pays the bills) is a daunting task. It can only be done as a labor of love. Leading staff, managing board members, fundraising, responding to millions of inquiries, and indulging the most esoteric of inquiries, Henry has done it all. It should come as no surprise that Henry’s favorite Mark Twain quote is, “Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”

Henry will continue to work part-time on curatorial projects at the museum after he retires as director, and for that we are grateful. But, he has “reached the grandpa stage of life,” as Twain put it, and with a two-year-old granddaughter and another grandchild on the way, Henry has earned a new pastime. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t encourage everyone reading this to make a generous donation to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Henry’s honor. It is the least we can do for all he has done for us.