Macey Hensley is just 7 years old, but she has spent more time with celebrities and national political figures than most of us ever will.
She talks about former presidents like they’re her neighbors. She painted with George W. Bush. Barack Obama gave her a ceramic presidential seal. TV show host Ellen DeGeneres presented her a ventriloquist dummy named Stacy as a gift. It’s hidden under a hat in a corner of Macey’s bedroom, though.
“Stacy creeps me out,” she said.
If you watch daytime TV, you might know the soon-to-be second-grader as the presidential whiz kid on DeGeneres’ talk show. If you’re from Kansas, you may have seen her on the state’s tourism ads. If you have a computer and you’re not one of the millions of people who already have watched her videos, well, Google her. (One clip from “The Ellen Show” has more than 10 million views.)
Macey has traveled all around the country amazing her fellow Americans with an encyclopedic knowledge of presidents, vice presidents and first ladies. She has appeared in ads for Carnival Cruise ships, visited Civil War re-enactments and hurled the first pitch at Major League Baseball games.
At the end of the day, though, her favorite place remains her family’s farm outside Council Grove, Kan., about 100 miles west of Kansas City.
“I get to hang out with all of my animals out here,” she said, sitting on the back deck with her parents, Nichole and Matt Hensley, and her Grandma Marsha. “I like to go swimming in the creek. I’ve got an old catalog I’ve been looking through. We got it at a thrift store. An old Sears and Roebuck. It’s pretty neat.”
Yep. She has appeared onstage next to NBC “Today” show host Matt Lauer and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and yet she’s just as content to read a secondhand reproduction catalog from a general store of 100 years ago.
“Everywhere we go, everybody relates to this little country girl who’s had this miracle dropped down on her,” her grandmother Marsha Hensley said. “She’s been to the White House, New York City, the Rockefeller Center. When she walks away from things, it’s like she’s left a ballgame. ‘OK. That’s over. Does Dad need help moving cattle?’ There’s nothing different about her.”
Nothing, and yet everything all at once.
The Ellen routine
To hear Macey tell the story, her first appearance on “Ellen” was no big whoop.
“My mom was sitting on pins and needles, though,” she said.
Nichole backs up that assessment; she couldn’t even make herself eat that day.
“We had no clue how it would take place or what would happen,” she said. “Mace had a cold and her nose was running, and she had Kleenexes with her the whole time. I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t good.’ ”
Consider that moment:
You’ve posted a couple of videos of your daughter reciting presidential facts on Facebook. At the urging of friends and family, you send the videos to the “Ellen” show. One day you make a trip to the local Dollar General store, and when you get back to your car, there’s a missed call and a voicemail from a producer who wants to talk about Macey.
Just a couple of weeks later, you’ve flown your family from your Kansas town of about 2,000 to Universal City, Calif. Suddenly you’re standing backstage getting ready to send your then-4-year-old daughter out to talk with a famous talk show host and comedian in front of a live audience.
Pins and needles, indeed.
After nearly a dozen appearances on the show now, though, it’s routine.
The family tries to leave for California on a Sunday to accommodate Nichole’s teaching schedule.
On Monday, producers run through the appearance with Macey in her own personalized dressing room. She’ll practice going out on stage by walking out of the dressing room bathroom and sitting down on the couch. A producer pretends to be DeGeneres and asks her the questions they’ve prepared. When it’s time to tape, the family waits offstage until it’s Macey’s time to go on. They tape in one take “and if something goes wrong, it goes wrong,” Macey said.
On Tuesday, they fly back home.
In between, there’s some California-required tutoring, the rare offstage visit with DeGeneres and a trip to candy store It’Sugar for snacks.
“I like it all,” Macey said. “There’s not a best part or a worst part.”
Has any of it been scary?
“Nothing,” she said. “Nothing for me, but everything for my mom. My dad just plays it cool. He’s fine with it.”
Macey and her family now have a contract with the “Ellen” show. Matt and Nichole say they do have worries about putting her out there so much. The number of social media views Macey receives is staggering.
“That first time she was on, I was looking at Ellen’s Facebook account and watching the views go 1 million, 5 million, 10 million, 18 million — it scared us a little bit,” she said. “They announced ‘Council Grove, Kansas.’ Well, there’s not many Hensleys who live in Council Grove, Kansas. Then she’d start to get recognized when we’d go out places. We were pretty naive at the time.”
But going on three years now, nothing necessarily negative has happened. A man in India for a time was passing himself off as Macey on Facebook, though he eventually turned the account over to the Hensleys.
“That kind of worried us a bit,” Nichole said. “Friends contacted him and said, ‘This isn’t right — you’re not Macey.’ ”
“It kind of dumbfounds you,” Matt said. “It’s hard to look back and think what it was like before.”
But there was a time before all this when Macey was just a little baby girl.
Macey was born right around the same time as Matt’s dad, Bob Hensley, had to stop working.
“Bob had a fight with cancer and he had to come home, he couldn’t work anymore, which devastated him,” said Marsha of her husband. “But Macey was born about that time, and he was home, and Macey needed day care, so Papa became Macey’s day care. We called it Papa’s Day Care, and Macey was his star student because she was his only student.”
As she grew old enough to talk and learn, Papa Bob taught her the presidents on the bills in his wallet. Dollar bills were Washingtons. Fives were Lincolns.
“She knew all the presidents on the money, because Grandpa Bob had told her all about that,” Marsha said. “She’d go around asking for people’s Jacksons.”
Around the time Macey turned 3, Papa Bob lost his cancer battle.
“He was just her best friend,” Matt said. “He’d do anything for her.”
Not long after, Marsha picked up some sets of flash cards of states, planets and presidents from a bargain bin at Target. Macey beelined for the presidents.
“Looking back, I think she saw them not as presidents but papas, because of the bond she had with Papa Bob,” Nichole said. “They just looked like pictures of grandpas to her.”
The family would go through the cards with her, reading the names and some facts from the back of the card.
In two weeks time, Macey had them all memorized. Not just the presidents, but the vice presidents and first ladies, too.
“She’d say who it was, and I’d have to peek at the back to make sure she was right because there’s still some of them I don’t know,” Nichole said. “Then she’d watch YouTube videos of songs of the presidents, and she could recite all of them in order.”
Macey knew all of these before she could read (in her “Ellen” appearance with Clinton, Macey was given a card with drawings on it so she knew what questions to ask the 2016 Democratic nominee; watch that clip and more at EllenTube.com).
Nichole said Macey seems to learn best by listening, which is clear from hearing her speak. Macey’s little girl voice has the thick rural accent of an old Kansas farmer. She leaves the g off her “ing” words and pronounces creek as “crick.”
Occasionally, she’ll repeat things she maybe shouldn’t. A family friend told Macey that Civil War soldiers often died of a less polite word than dysentery, which she repeated on a very funny segment recorded for “Ellen.”
“I really didn’t want that one to make the tape,” Macey said.
But people who have known her say she’s able to make connections in ways other kids her age haven’t quite mastered.
“When people teach Macey something, she remembers it and remembers every detail of it, but she also wants to know what goes with that,” said local history teacher Mary Kay Myers. “She’s inquisitive and bright, but she also pieces together the bigger picture, and, to me, a lot of kids don’t do that.”
It was Myers who put Macey in front of her first audience. A video Nichole posted of Macey going through the presidential flash cards caught Myers’ eye, so she asked if Macey, then 4 years old, might want to talk to her eighth-grade class.
After a visit to the school, Macey and her mom agreed to do it. Macey arrived to talk to a classroom of 14-year-olds in a George Washington costume she had worn for Halloween.
“She’s standing at the table, and I was flipping the cards like I had seen her mother do,” Myers said. “As she started talking, the kids just inched closer and closer to her. Then she goes on to tell me she knows the wives. Every once in awhile she’s adding in a detail. And then by the end of the presentation she’s taking questions, she’s telling them all kinds of facts. It was almost like she was meant to be around a room full of people.”
Maybe that’s her future. Macey said she’d like to be president someday. What might she do if elected?
“I want to get teachers paid more,” she said. “But I have 30 years to go to think about that, so right now, I don’t know.”
For now, though, Macey is just as content to hang out on the farm. There she can play with her dogs (Charlie and Jackie after Jackie Kennedy, of course). She can visit her cat’s new babies, jump on her trampoline or swim down at the “crick.”
She’s happy to look through her collection of presidential campaign buttons with visitors. Or play with the Barbie White House and Air Force One she received from DeGeneres.
She might show off the painting she made with George W. Bush, but she’s just as proud of the portrait of Dwight D. Eisenhower she made with her momma.
“My dad made these stairs,” she says as she takes visitors on a tour of her farm. “You want to see the wheelchair my dad made for the lame calf? Oh! You want to see Wing Ding the blind steer? He’s kind of smelly.”
And the thing is, you might just follow that kid anywhere she wants to lead.
A presidential minute with Macey Hensley
We asked Macey to tell us about some of our area presidential personalities:
▪ Charles Curtis: “He was vice president under Herbert Hoover. He went to the Kaw Mission for school (near Council Grove, Kan.). He was the only Native American vice president.”
▪ Harry S. Truman: “I’ve been to his library. That was about a year ago. He actually had very poor eyesight. He liked to read books. Because he had glasses he didn’t play sports. He actually read every book in his public library.”
▪ Dwight D. Eisenhower: “He was actually born in Texas. He wasn’t born in Kansas. He was a five-star general, and he actually shook my great-grandpa’s hand.”
David Frese, firstname.lastname@example.org