Tenney K. Lehman, 90, died on Jan. 7 at Coolidge House nursing home in Brookline, Mass. 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.
Lehman was born Tenney Barbara Kelley in Winthrop, Mass., in 1917. A graduate of Winthrop High School, she worked at the Boston radio station 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 clients such as Andy Boy Broccoli, stayed with her throughout her life. From her teenage years, she took pleasure in writing short stories and poetry.
She married Thomas H. Lehman in 1941.
From the first time she and Tom visited Martha’s Vineyard in 1953, 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. The Lehmans soon purchased land in Gay Head and built a small home there where they retreated for days off, and later, vacations. When the Rev. Lehman was called to be rector of Grace Church, in Newton, Mass., in 1959, the couple maintained their Vineyard connection, spending vacations and summers there and returning as year-round residents after retiring in 1986.
In Newton, Lehman 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 handled alumni/ae relations with the journalists from the United States and overseas who participated in the sabbatical program, and she took the lead in administering the selection process for each year’s new class of fellows.
At their Aquinnah home on Martha’s Vineyard, Tenney Lehman delighted in nature, joyously greeting spring’s first mayflowers and discovering with glee jack-in-the-pulpits, Indian pipes, and lady-slippers 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.
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. Many people — including, in later years, some of her physicians — were grateful recipients of poems she composed specifically for them.
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; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. Contributions in her memory may be made to the Cassem Professorship in Psychiatry Fund at Massachusetts General Hospital, 55 Fruit St., Boston, MA 02114.