Giving Thanks: Friendship, Stewardship & Scholarship
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.)
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.”
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.
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”
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.
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.