Giving Thanks: Friendship, Stewardship & Scholarship

Written by in Events, Features, News, Profiles

An Appreciation

Tom Wright [Still] Loves Neenah. 
But He Loves American Design Even More.

For 35 Years, Tom Was the Man Behind Neenah’s Excellence
in Promotion and Advertising. He Retired This Summer.

On a memorable morning last month at Atlanta’s Portfolio Center, Neenah Paper announced the Neenah Tom Wright Scholarship. This major investment in the design community honors Wright’s legacy as Neenah’s design director for 35 years. His stewardship has influenced both the paper industry and public perception of design. (Tom Wright admires a vintage truck owned by Fred Cisneros of Santa Fe, courtesy of Woody Welch Photography.)

Processed with Rookie

Courtesy Woody Welch Photography.

This sheet of Georgia O’Keeffe poppy stamps, issued in 2002, includes a quote from the artist: “Nobody sees a flower, really—it is so small—we haven’t time, and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

This sentiment was in full bloom recently at the presentation of the Neenah Tom Wright Scholarship to its first recipient, Portfolio Center graduating student Hayley Ivy. Newly retired Neenah design director Tom Wright and I have known each other for over 25 years, and I was ecstatic to be there to see my friend honored on this occasion.

Hank Richardson, design coach and director of opportunity at Atlanta’s Portfolio Center, has known Wright for even longer than I have—about 30 years. He credits Neenah, under Wright’s design direction, with “educating designers not only about paper and printing, but also about business, encouraging us to be responsible for our own education: how to elevate concepts, how to present better, how to shape a message, how to sell better.”

Hank's note

Richardson included this note with a personal gift to Wright, Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time.

Richardson adds, “Tom has been the voice for Neenah’s brand, and he has been the ambassador, the exemplar, of Neenah’s values. He truly scaled Neenah’s brand, and now design is being given the opportunity to loosen conventional business thinking into something else. The scholarship will help carry that forward.” The scholarship represents a $25,000 commitment from Neenah, to be awarded over a five-year period.

Dallas Duncan Franklin is the new art director at Neenah, and the person who will be carrying Wright’s legacy forward. Franklin has known Richardson since the day 15 years ago when she visited Portfolio Center for the first time, as a prospective student. She has known of “the legendary Tom Wright” for almost that long, but didn’t meet him in person until shortly after she’d been hired at Neenah.

Dallas' Note

Franklin inscribed her personal gift, An Eames Anthology.

Franklin gave Wright a copy of An Eames Anthology. Her inscription reads, “Tom—Thank you for pioneering the way at Neenah! You have handed me a brand in ‘MINT’ condition. I promise to continue this legacy, to carry Neenah into the future through great design, the best creative partnership, and that essential LOVE of PAPER that makes us who we are. Cheers, Dallas”

Eames anthology2

Wright makes his new book feel right at home.

Portfolio Center faculty select each semester’s Neenah Tom Wright Scholarship recipient, and the award comes as a total surprise to the winner. Richardson is delighted to describe the contributions of first recipient Hayley Ivy. He declares, “Hayley has set the bar higher for everyone around her. She loves design, she shares her ideas, and she has been a consensus builder many times. She reminds me of an old African proverb: ‘When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.’ Hayley already understands how to unite them. In a school that is bursting with energy, she stands out.”


Richardson and Ivy review her book project, Thoughts, which explores topics someone might think and/or write about (for oneself), but probably not talk about. Courtesy Peter Hobbs Photography, Atlanta.

Richardson concludes, “Hayley has the ability to ground her ideas in strategic thinking. She listens, and while she is listening, she is applying! I will be sad to see Hayley and her generous spirit leave—but excited to see what she does next. And I’ll be eager to help in any way I can.” The morning Ivy received the scholarship, she also learned she’d won Best of Show at the school’s quarterly awards show, for her Ivy Chair.


When are notes more than notes? When they are Rachel Eleanor Phillips’ visual notes! Courtesy Peter Hobbs Photography, Atlanta.

During the lively presentation by Neenah’s Richard Johnson (premium packaging category manager), first-semester Portfolio Center student Rachel Eleanor Phillips, seated down the row from me, took the visual notes shown above—with no expectation that I would ask to have them photographed.

Glimpse of Dallas

Dallas Duncan Franklin is in her papery element at Portfolio Center,
conducting a Neenah Internship competition.

When Franklin finally met Wright, “I understood immediately why he has had this lasting impact at Neenah. His energy, passion for paper, and deep knowledge of the industry are infectious. And I plan to stay in touch with Tom going forward, in order to check in about new initiatives and creative ideas. He is a fabulous sounding board.”

After the presentation, Wright and I adjourned for a leisurely lunch (because he is retired!). I asked him to think about what the scholarship means to him. By dessert, he had it: “Neenah’s endowing this scholarship in my name is a great validation of the ‘creative vision’ that drove me for over 35 years. As design director at Neenah, I was able to provide a constant forum for design to advance business goals, and to empower designers to create a quilt of work that has kept our brand fresh and unique. I recognized early on in my career that my contribution would be to shepherd excellent work through the maze of business questions and concerns.”

Wright reflected, “It has been my privilege to allow creatives to do their best work. And now, Neenah has made a new, ongoing investment in the design community by funding this scholarship. No legacy could make me prouder. And I am touched to think how proud my parents—who were my first mentors—would be.”


Courtesy Woody Welch Photography.

Aspens are the largest organisms on earth. I had thought this distinction belonged to sequoias, but photographer Woody Welch explained to me that aspens are all connected to each other. They grow in a colony, and are considered a single organism. At this season of Thanksgiving, may we all consider the colonies of which we are part and express our gratitude—ideally on paper.

PS—For a glimpse of Richardson’s coaching style, I highly recommend his blog feature, I Got Punk’d.

  1. 11
    Kim said:

    Three cheers for Tom for shepherding amazing design work through the business maze…for 35 years! And three more cheers for him living the life of leisure now…but we miss him!

  2. 11

    I met Tom Wright at the Aspen Design Conference in 1988–I was hosting a party and Tom politely inquired if it was okay to join us (of course!). That began a 25+ year professional friendship. I have always admired Tom, his work, his interest in design and in paper, and the leadership he has shown through the projects he’s led at Neenah. His retirement, while a loss for the paper and design industries, is surely a well deserved and hard earned vacation!

  3. 11
    Pam Williams said:

    Tom’s passion for design and for the design community are evident in everything he has created and directed on behalf of Neenah over many years. He has set a standard for excellence at Neenah that is enviable. Most importantly, Tom is a fine man with a warm spirit and a huge heart, a person I’m proud to know and proud to have worked with and for.

    Tom, wishing you much happiness in your journey. You will be missed, but not forgotten.

  4. 11
    David Laufer said:

    It takes a very special kind of talent to create the opportunity and the trust required for outstanding design to be conceived, approved, produced, and celebrated. The generosity of spirit and appreciation for the talents of others is a rare gift that Tom Wright has, and that he gave to Atlanta’s design community.Neenah customers, shareholders and admirers everywhere benefited immeasurable from his contribution.

  5. 11
    Matt Porter said:

    Simply the best. Tom made a lot of dreams come true during his long career. May all his dreams for the future come true in his many, many years ahead!

  6. 11

    Tom Wright is the exemplar of excellence, passion, and brilliant execution. He leaves Neenah with a rich and enduring legacy of tremendous work. When I am stuck in a quandary I will often ask myself, “What would Tom Wright do?” Enjoy your retirement, Tom – you have earned it! Thank you for being a leader and a beacon in the industry.

  7. 11
    Tom Biederbeck said:

    Tom Wright: a man to be respected, celebrated & emulated!

  8. 11

    Tom has created a lasting legacy over the past 35 years. Under Tom’s keen eye and passion for great design, Neenah had set the bar high. The Neenah Tom Wright Scholarship will keep his vision alive. Congratulation to Hank Richardson and Dallas Duncan Franklin, who will carry on the legacy Tom has
    generously left in her capable hands.

  9. 11

    This is wonderful! Tom has always been someone ready to talk about design, paper, and where ideas can go. Excited to see that passion being carried forward. Thank you Tom for always being gracious to the community and so many others that you connected with over an awesome career. I miss you already – enjoy the next chapter!

  10. 11

    Congratulations Tom, and thank you for being a true hero for our industry in so many ways.
    I wish I could have gotten to know you better. If you’re ever out here on the left coast please
    let me know…I’ll show you all the projects we printed on Neenah paper! What a fantastic thing Neenah has done to honor promising design students in your name. Have a blast with your fishing and skiing and reading and friends and family!
    Michael Osborne

  11. 11
    Allan Haley said:

    A wonderful tribute!

    I did not know Tom, but I’m certainly familiar with his work. His designs were powerful contributions to Neenah’s brand, and an inspiration to so many of us in the graphic artists.

  12. 11
    Tom Wright said:

    Thanks so much for this wonderful tribute. I was just the fortunate torchbearer. So many design teams, papermakers and terrific salespeople made my run an unimaginable experience. I have been blessed beyond words.

    Hayley, I wish you great joy in your career. Hank, thanks for raising these talented individuals and for being such a wonderful friend, and Dallas, I’m looking forward to seeing how you grow the brand in years to come. Best to all.


  13. 11

    Tom knows paper. Tom knows design. Tom knows fishing. I am honored to know Tom.

    Keep On Keepin’ On Termite.

    – Jake

  14. 11
    Nancy Kuhn said:

    While I have never met Tom, I have heard my sister speak of him, and, of course, Neenah- What an amazing tribute to a person so admired, Congratulations, Tom, enjoy a more leisurely existence and know that your legacy will continue to grow. All the best!

  15. 11

    I am so excited to see such an honor for Tom Wright to celebrate his genius and creativity! And his vision to help Art Directors worldwide be the very best they can be!

  16. 11
    Joe Isaak said:

    Congratulations Tom. I could not think of a more fitting tribute, from Neenah and Portfolio Center. Tom and I were frequently what I think of as trade-show friends and neighbors. We were often together in the setup, in the weeds, before many a design conference. I always looked for — and still do as an attendee — the Neenah booth, and what Tom was doing and what he inspired. Good luck, sir.

  17. 11
    Bev Dittberner said:

    Congratulations Tom. You are a ROCK STAR. I wish you all the best for your next adventure. May your fishing lines never get caught in the reeds and may you meet many beautiful trout in the years to come.

  18. 12

    An excellent tribute to someone who has contributed so much over the years to the worlds of paper, print, design, and more. A continued investment in the future of design is a continued investment in a more beautiful world. Congratulations, Tom!

  19. 12

    Congratulations, Tom, for your contribution to the graphic design community through your work with Neenah Paper. I remember approaching you about donating paper for the Graphic Imperative exhibition catalogue in 2004. This donation made it possible to print the catalog on the very limited budget we had. It made all the difference. Thank you.