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Discovering a special gift

Helen Hargleroad made many gifts in a long life spent working in clay.

On her potter’s wheel, Hargleroad’s fingers shaped pitchers and plates, birdhouses and bowls. Her popular handmade pieces brought joy to those who frequently shared them as presents over the past 40 years.

But none of those gifts have had more meaning than the four that will be unwrapped this Christmas morning.

Hargleroad, who passed away in May at 89, left something special hidden for those who meant the most to her. Tucked in a box of her old tools sat four Advent candleholders.

Four candleholders, one each for her husband, Jack, and their three children. While Hargleroad made hundreds of the ceramic disks over the years, these four might mean the most.

“She made quite a few of them, but I didn’t have any,” said her husband. “And I didn’t know they were down there. It’s very special to me.”

The pieces were found by chance this fall, when Jack Hargleroad and his children offered Helen’s glazing materials and ceramic tools to the Potters Guild of Central Pennsylvania.

Helen Hargleroad was instrumental in the formation of the guild and helped build its first gas kiln in 1972 at the Art Alliance building in Lemont, said the guild’s current secretary, Christine Stangel.

When guild members went through Hargleroad’s old tools, they found a shock: four pieces that she made in 2000, but didn’t fire. Perhaps even more surprising, the brittle pieces were intact.

“They were very fragile,” Stangel recalled. “They easily could have broken.”

Stangel and the guild knew what they had to do — finish Hargleroad’s pieces and give them back to the family.

“It was such a treat to present them to the family, because they have given so much to the guild,” Stangel said. “It’s a treat to have a reconnection with one of the founders.”

So, in the dark, dry basement of the Art Alliance building, Jack Hargleroad received the best gift he could have asked for — a memory of his late wife.

“Down in the basement, I had my wood shop and she had her clay,” Hargleroad said late last week. “And she just loved it.”

Helen Hargleroad, who took up pottery later in life while raising the couple’s three children, learned the craft through the Penn State art department.

She soon became an accomplished potter who sold her work at a local cooperative shop and at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts in State College.

“She was very happy to be able to sell it,” Jack Hargleroad said. “In fact, she bought a car with the money she made. She thought that was the greatest thing in the world.”

So does Stangel, who hopes one day to follow in Hargleroad’s footsteps. Still new to pottery, Stangel is now selling enough pieces to help support her family.

She credits her success to a revival of the guild.

“I know a lot of potters could not have a facility like this at their home,” she said. “We have that here, and Helen was a part of that.”

In her research of the original group of guild potters, Stangel found a passage written by Hargleroad herself.

“Clay is a hobby I pursue when I find time,” she wrote. “When I return to the wheel after a long absence, I feel a surge of well being and a ‘welcome home!’ When I feel clay in my hands as I build it is the same. I’ve been away too long.”

Jack Hargleroad will present Helen’s Advent candleholders to the couple’s children this Christmas. After they celebrate the holidays, the entire family is traveling to the Gulf Shores, Ala., where Jack and Helen spent their winters. There the family will spread Helen’s ashes.

“The view over the water is just lovely — we can see the sun rise and the sun set,” Hargleroad said, his voice cracking. “She loved to sit there and look at that.”

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