Tenney K. Lehman, 90, died in early hours of January 7, 2007, at Coolidge House nursing home in Brookline, where she was receiving hospice care.
She was on the staff of Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism from 1968 to 1985, retiring as executive director.
Her life was defined by devotion to her family, dedication to finding meaning through poetry and writing, and determination to prevail in the face of illness and other daunting challenges.
Tenney Barbara Kelley was born in Winthrop on December 23, 1917, and raised in Winthrop and Wellesley. She was especially devoted to her maternal grandfather, baseball player Fred Tenney of Georgetown (Boston Beaneaters and New York Giants), whose name she carried with pride.
A graduate of Winthrop High School, she worked at WEEI as an advertising copywriter after completing studies at Chamberlayne Junior College. Her love of words, which started to blossom as she created jingles and slogans for such clients as Andy Boy Broccoli, stayed with her throughout her life. From her teenage years, she took pleasure in writing short stories and poetry; years later in the early 1960s, one of the high points of her life was studying at Brandeis University with acclaimed poet Louise Bogan.
She married another Winthrop resident, Thomas H. Lehman, on December 9, 1941, in Coral Gables, Florida, where Tom was attending OCS. During World War Two, the couple lived in Dayton, Ohio, where Tom was a flight instructor at Wright Field; at the end of the war, they returned to Massachusetts. When her husband enrolled in the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Tenney contributed to the family income by typing other seminarians’ papers on her Underwood for ten cents a page.
From the first time she and Tom visited Martha’s Vineyard in 1953 after his graduation from ETS, they fell in love with the Island. In the Franklin Street rectory, Tenney provided hospitality to parishioners and visitors to the Vineyard while her husband tended the flock of the Episcopal Parish on Martha’s Vineyard. They soon purchased land in Gay Head and built a small home there where they retreated for days off, and later, vacations.
She and Tom scoured the Gay Head cliffs for fossils, and neighboring fields and pond shores for arrowheads and other artifacts from the island’s earliest occupants. Together, they cleared the land, restoring its ancient stone walls and foundations, and driving their pickup truck over dirt roads to cull trees for firewood. When Tom was called to be rector of Grace Church, in Newton, Mass., in 1959, they maintained their Vineyard connection, spending vacations and summers there and returning as year-round residents after retiring in 1986.
In Newton, Tenney began to explore the new possibilities opened to her. She took classes at Northeastern, Simmons, and Brandeis, then started work with a temporary employment agency.
One of her first assignments was at Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation, where she assisted curator Dwight Sargent. Her secretarial and administrative skills and warm personality led to her being hired as a permanent employee; within a matter of years she was named executive director by curator James C. Thomson. In that role, she served as editor of Nieman Reports, enlarging the scope of the quarterly publication, guiding its editorial direction, and contributing a reflective column to each issue.
In addition, she lovingly handled alumni/ae relations with the journalists from the United States and overseas who participated in the sabbatical program, and took the lead in administering the selection process for each year’s new class of Fellows. Her tenure as executive director of the Foundation took her to Canada, Greece, Norway, and Kenya to attend meetings of the International Press Institute and other professional gatherings.
At their Aquinnah home on the Vineyard, Tenney delighted in nature, joyously greeting spring’s first mayflowers and discovering with glee jack-in-the-pulpits, Indian pipes, and ladyslippers hidden deep in the woods. In the summer, she took pleasure in picking high-bush blueberries to make pie and beach plums to make jelly.
Year round, she was an avid birdwatcher, scribbling notes about sightings in a well-worn, much-loved copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. One of her memorable sightings was of a golden eagle soaring above, then settling into high branches near their hilltop home. She welcomed the wild turkeys who wandered onto the lawn with generous handouts of cracked corn; several years ago she reported with excitement that a peacock had taken to visiting their land regularly.
She was enthusiastic in sharing her love of birds with her family, teaching them to recognize the distinctive songs of chickadee, bobwhite, whip-poor-will, Carolina wren, and even the “confusing fall warblers.”
Tenney was at her happiest when “working on something” with yellow legal pad and black pen—her preferred method of writing and editing; she long ago gave up her typewriter and never used a computer. As she faced numerous health and other challenges, she sought to find meaning in life’s mysteries and sorrows through her writing, creating poems that eloquently conveyed her determination to prevail and her gratitude to the caregivers who joined her in that effort.
Many people – including, in later years, some of her physicians — were grateful recipients of poems she composed specifically for them. After being diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2003, she honored her surgeon by asking him to read aloud a poem she had written especially for him, before they entered the operating room.
Her love of poetry sustained her throughout her life; she was an active member of writing groups at the assisted living facilities where she spent her last decade and her works never failed to strike a chord with those who read them. Her bookshelves overflowed with the works of Robert Frost, Randall Jarrell, Amy Clampett, Miss Bogan, Billy Collins, Theodore Spencer, and her favorite, Emily Dickinson. The mysteries of Dick Francis provided lighter fare.
A lifelong regret was her lack of a full college education; at Youville House in Cambridge, where she lived in an eighth floor studio apartment from 2003 to 2007, she wrote happily that “Now I look down on Harvard/ And Harvard looks up at me.”
Throughout their marriage, Tenney and Tom took pleasure in collecting antiques. For a time in the late 1940s, they ran a small shop, Five Acres Antiques, in Hudson, Mass. Their homes were furnished with many treasures found on antiquing expeditions throughout New England. After retirement, when they returned to the Vineyard full-time, Tenney became active in the Martha’s Vineyard Doll Club. Despite their devotion to the Island, the couple enjoyed traveling. They went on safari in Kenya and visited museums, cathedrals, and ancient churches in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Their love of small islands was evidenced by visits to Nantucket, Bermuda, the Orkneys, and the Aran Isles.
Her husband died in 1998 and their son, Richard, died in 2004. Tenney is survived by her daughter, the Rev. Daphne B. Noyes, of Cambridge; her four living grandchildren Zoë Nickolas, RN, of Newton, Amanda Leone, LICSW, of Jamaica Plain, Jennifer Lehman of West Tisbury, and Thomas Allen Lehman of Vineyard Haven; six great-grandchildren, and her cousin, Maribeth Hendricks of Whittier, California.
Contributions in her memory may be made to the Cassem Professorship in Psychiatry Fund at Massachusetts General Hospital. 55 Fruit Street, Boston, MA 02114. A Requiem Mass will be held at the Church of the Advent, 30 Brimmer Street, Boston, on Saturday, January 19, at 10:30am. Burial will take place on Martha’s Vineyard later this year.