I knew I was going to love Atha Tehon from the moment I started my research on her—before I ever even opened a box of her papers. As always, I started with a simple google search and one of the first results was “Syracuse woman adopts four cats with $50,000 trust fund.” Turns out, those four cats belonged to Atha Tehon, a book designer and art director for children’s books. She had lost her husband and lived alone—and for the first of many times during the processing of her papers, I was struck by her thoughtfulness and caring—not just of her concern for the well-being of her pets after her death, but also the financial burden four cats would put on the good soul who adopted them.
I started with her correspondence thinking I would separate her professional correspondence from her personal correspondence; but I quickly discovered that this was impossible—professional colleagues soon became treasured friends who communicated long after a project was completed. As I scanned the contents of her letters, it was clear that she was beloved—every letter was full of respect and love. In one letter, Guy Fleming, writing to someone who forwarded a copy to Atha, stated “I remember Atha perfectly well: … there she’d be, center of a circle of peace and calm,” (box 3, folder 1) which seemed to accurately put into the words the woman I was quickly getting to know and love.
As I moved on through the remainder of her papers, I determined that she was peaceful and calm because she put herself in order through the EXTENSIVE use of post-it notes … I suspect that there was a fairly large number in the budget line for post-its at Dial Books for Young Readers where Atha worked for thirty years. She may have been calm, but there is absolutely nothing calm about her calendars which show what her day-to-day life must have been like. She seems to have had her hand in many of our most beloved children’s books and worked closely with any number of extraordinary authors and illustrators including Tom Feelings, Jerry Pinkney, Maurice Sendak, William Steig, and Margot Zemach, to name only a few.
This collection is nothing short of a visual delight—pretty much every folder contains copies of beautiful illustrations for children’s books in every possible state of completion. Sometimes there are rough sketches, sometimes the finished product, and occasionally, you can really see how a book started, evolved, was revised, evolved again, and was completed. But her book projects are not the only place in the collection that we find art. Atha Tehon, herself, was an accomplished artist and the collection holds sketchbooks, pencil drawings, Christmas cards of her own design, photographs of her paintings, etc. She was also friends with a whole host of creative people who sent her artwork, illustrated letters, and beautifully handmade Christmas cards. The entire time I worked on this collection, I was in heaven.
When I came to the end, I was sad … I had truly enjoyed the company of Atha Tehon and I thought I knew her pretty well, but I was wrong. I saw the humble, beautiful woman she was, certainly, but it was only once I read the letters and notes people sent after she died, that I truly understood what an amazing woman she was and how far-reaching her influence. The folder of memorial information came to me late in the processing stage (it was not part of the papers that came to us after her death), but as I sat reading, I had tears in my eyes. It was only here, in words of others, did I learn how many people credited her with the success of their careers in publishing, design, and illustration and how much they learned from her. It was here that I learned that she was known for “Athaisms” and for inventing “a measure for that huge gap between a hairline and a ½ point space—the ‘cat’s whisker.’” (box 2, folder 10). Jerry Pinkney stated that “she had the rare gift of a critical eye as well as an uncanny ability to gently support, nurture, and inspire illustrators to create their best work,” and Sara Reynolds, senior designer for Dial Books for Young Readers from 1984 to 1987, wrote in “A Tribute to Atha” that “Atha cared about those who worked with her as much as she cared about every detail in a book. She was kind, patient, thoughtful, and always ready to listen. When we worked with Atha, we were a family, and after we left her staff, we were still a family … Atha seemed ageless, and now we grapple with the knowledge that she wasn’t. But her voice, vision, and legacy live on in thousands of books, hundreds of illustrators, and scores of editors, designers, and art directors who benefited from her wisdom, taste, sensitivity, and support.”
Who would not wish to be remembered in such a way?