HARRISONBURG — Former chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, Richard Obenshain, became well-known in the world of politics during the early 1960-70s and his name lays across the headquarters of the Republican Party of Virginia in downtown Richmond.
But his career was cut short. After returning home from a campaign appearance where he won the Republican nomination to run for the U.S. Senate, the small twin-engine airplane he was traveling in crashed into trees while attempting to land, killing Obenshain, the pilot and a flight instructor.
The story of Obenshain, who inspired many, comes back to life through the pages of a new book, “Richard Obenshain — A Spirit of Fire.”
Over the course of nearly 10 years, author Joel Hensley gathered first-hand accounts of those who knew Obenshain to highlight his legacy.
Hensley’s journey with Obenshain began when Hensley was an undergraduate student at James Madison University. While taking a course on Virginia politics, Hensley asked his professor, former delegate A.R. “Pete” Giesen, about Obenshain.
“I had always heard about him, and knew Mark [Obenshain], but didn’t know much about his father and wanted to learn more,” Hensley said. “I said to Giesen, ‘Someone needs to write a book on this guy.’ Pete responded, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ ”
Taking the idea to heart, Hensley spoke with Frank B. Atkinson, author of “The Dynamic Dominion,” a story detailing Virginia’s political transformation from World War II to the Reagan Revolution.
Hensley said Atkinson encouraged him to pursue the book further. With final approval from the Obenshain family, he began conducting interviews and research.
“The story of Dick Obenshain primarily takes place in the 60s and 70s,” Hensley said. “I wanted to differentiate from Frank’s book, he told the story of Virginia’s modern political history. I wanted mine to be a more personal story with Dick Obenshain as the main focus.”
In Hensley’s opinion, the book stands out “not only because it is the first biographical attempt at telling Dick Obenshain’s life story, but also because it is packed full of life lessons, lessons on leadership, lessons on how to build a coalition, lessons on practical politics in general and how you have to build an organization from the ground level whether it’s in politics or in business.”
“If readers are able to ‘read between the lines’ it can be a self-help book to many as well I think,” Hensley said.
Hensley said the project took him so long because most people who knew Obenshain were either deceased or scarcely remember any details of him during that time period.
Despite being a more than 40-year time difference, Hensley said politics were tumultuous like they are today, but things were at least cordial on the surface.
“The chapter describing the 1978 race really captures that,” Hensley said. “I think the way candidates treat each other trickles down and all four candidates during that race treated each other with the utmost respect.”
Hensley said he hopes his book can remind and inspire people to return to that, and perhaps, help heal the wounds experienced in Virginia between Democrats and Republicans and especially within the factions dividing the Republican Party.
“Dick Obenshain is an exemplary figure that embodies all that is good about Virginia and his tragic death really brought together the entire Commonwealth for a moment in time,” Hensley said. “I hope readers will be inspired to chase after their own dreams, but also, if they are political, to return to and remember a time when politics wasn’t as personal and an individual’s character was not necessarily defined or measured by his political beliefs.”
Republican Sen. Mark Obenshain, son of Dick Obenshain, declined to comment until he was able to read the book for himself.
Hensley is a native of McGaheysville and graduated from JMU in 2008. He worked with former Del. Matt Lohr, R-Harrisonburg, and later worked for Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, during his first year in office as a legislative aide.
Hensley started the club, now known as The Shenandoah Valley Young Republicans, and was the Republican 26th District Legislative Chair for a time. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Paperback and e-editions of “Richard Obenshain — A Spirit of Fire” can be purchased on Amazon.