Norwood Reads – “Following Atticus” – by Charlotte Canelli

Read Charlotte Canelli’s column in the January 2, 2014 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

I met Atticus Finch in October 2011 in Burlington, Vermont.  No, not THAT Atticus Finch, the heroic attorney fictionalized by Harper Lee in the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

The Atticus M. Finch I met on that lovely fall day in 2011 was a four-footed version.

Atticus and his best friend, Tom Ryan, appeared at the last luncheon of the New England Library Conference on October 2, 2011 as the conference’s guest speaker.  Harper-Collins had just published Ryan’s book, “Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship” the previous month.

Tom Ryan had a luncheon audience utterly enthralled.  Yes, his book is an honest, intriguing, and heartwarming story (read on below).  However, the audience members also met Atticus (the One Little Dog; see above) – extremely up close and personal, and it was an extra special treat. We learned a tremendous amount in that hour about Tom Ryan, his life, his adventures, and friendship with his furry friend.

We also learned a lot from Atticus whose message was simply to keep cool, look good, and love the hand that feeds you.

As Tom tells it, he was a small-town newspaper founder (publisher/editor/reporter) in a small New England coastal town.  For more than ten years, Ryan wrote and reported on happenings in Newburyport, Massachusetts in the “Undertoad”, the small paper there. While canvassing the area and writing controversial articles about small-town politics, Tom Ryan made some friends, and many more enemies along the way.  At some point during that journey, Tom was talked into adopting an aging miniature schnauzer named Max.

Sadly, Max died only eighteen months later and left Tom lonelier than before and discouraged.   You see, Tom Ryan’s mother died when Tom was only six years old – the youngest of nine children of an unequipped surviving father.  Often at odds with his siblings, and always at odds with his father, Tom was often lost and angry.  That is until Max came into his life when he felt alive and hopeful – perhaps for the first time that he could remember.

But after Max’s passing, magic and serendipity intervened.

A new (yet, older) miniature schnauzer appeared in Tom’s life and he named him Atticus M. Finch, and they quickly became the very best of friends.

Much of the story in “Following Atticus” is best told in Tom’s book, yet it’s important to note that one of the turning points of Tom’s and Atticus’ life came shortly after and somewhere around Christmas 2006 when Tom decided to begin to hike New Hampshire mountains and raise money for charity after he had lost a very good (human) friend to cancer.

Soon afterwards, in 2007, he and Atticus moved to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the story of their hiking adventures began in a blog called Tom and Atticus. Between that time and the publication of “Following Atticus”, they both climbed more than 450 4000’ peaks in New Hampshire, raising money for charity.  One of those organizations to benefit from thousands of dollars in donations was Angell Animal Medical Center in Jamaica Plain.

In his talk to librarians in October 2011, Ryan shared many things besides the obvious stories of finding this furry guy and bonding with him. He shared honest and painful stories from his life at home as a child and as a young man.  He told how he had always pushed the envelope – and pushing the envelope naturally led to hiking all of the forty-eight 4000′ plus peaks in the winter. Did I mention hiking them twice? And with Atticus by his side (or in the lead).

When I returned from the New England Library Association conference in 2011, I read Tom Ryan’s book and encouraged other librarians to read it, too.

Our library is excited to have won a $7,500 federally-funded Library Services Technology Act (LSTA) grant administered by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC).

And so, a group of Norwood librarians chose “Following Atticus” as the book that we will promote during our Norwood Reads – One Book, One Community project in March and April of this year.  This One Book-One Community grant will help to fund six weeks of fun and educational programming focused not only on “Following Atticus” but on the themes of dog-loving and hiking.  Lecturers, speakers and organizations will share stories of mountaineering, canine education and services, and outdoor adventure.  Book discussions will take place all over Norwood – at the Senior Center, in the library, and in schools. Film series will be planned with screenings of “Marley and Me”, “Beethoven”, and the “Incredible Journey” among others with dogs as the main characters. Our project is sponsored by Together Yes of Norwood, the Friends of the Morrill Memorial Library, Norwood Public Access Television, the Norwood Senior Center and the Friends of Norwood Downtown.

Much has happened to Tom and Atticus since 2006 – including cancer for Atticus and the adoption of another miniature schnauzer named Will.  You can read all about them in Tom’s blog and follow them on more New Hampshire adventures. We’ll be sharing more of those accounts in our Norwood Reads – One Book, One Community adventure.

We are looking forward to sharing “Following Atticus” with you this year.  Look for brochures in the library or on the library website for events for the One Book Norwood program this spring.

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