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Thomas Todd, 89; carried on printing tradition

Thomas Todd (left) with his father, also named Thomas, in the 14 Beacon St. offices of Thomas Todd Co. in the late 1940s. Mr. Todd joined the company after World War II. Thomas Todd (left) with his father, also named Thomas, in the 14 Beacon St. offices of Thomas Todd Co. in the late 1940s. Mr. Todd joined the company after World War II.

He was the fourth Thomas Todd, one in a line of New Englanders who began plying the printing trade in 1811. His grandfather opened a printing shop in 1864 on Beacon Street, a few crisp strides from the State House, and called it - what else? - Thomas Todd Co.

Joining the company after World War II, Mr. Todd entered a world of storied tradition and gentility. A Latin maxim, spectemur agendo, was printed on the family's early business cards. To the Todds it meant: By our work may we be judged.

"He was a gentleman of very high ethical standards," said his son Duncan of Lexington, the fifth generation to run Thomas Todd Co., which closed 15 years ago. "Combine that with a deep and abiding respect for the dignity of each individual, regardless of what their position in life was."

Mr. Todd, who had lived in Littleton for many years, died Sunday in Golden Living Center, a Lexington nursing home. He was 89 and had suffered from dementia.

"He was a grand old man of printing," said Charles Rheault, former president of the Society of Printers in Boston. "He held together for a long time a wonderful institution, which of course was Thomas Todd printing. Everyone thought the world of T. Todd, as well as of the man himself."

Standing taller than 6 feet, Mr. Todd was a patrician presence in the 14 Beacon St. home of the business that bore his name. Descending from the main offices in Room 802 to the presses in the basement, he would greet employees, talk shop, then ascend to his perch on the top floor to handle finances.

"He liked words," his son said. "He also liked numbers. He liked numbers not as abstract concepts, but for the stories they told. He developed an interest in investment and following the stock market. And he ended up serving on the investment committees of a number of smaller nonprofits."

As the company's namesake, Mr. Todd may have seemed bred to preside over the family business, but that almost didn't happen.

Born in Concord, he grew up spending part of each summer at the family home in Rockport, and getting his hands dirty around town.

"He'd tell stories about working in the asparagus fields in Concord," his son said. "As a consequence, he had a very particular opinion about asparagus, and for the life of me I can't remember if he thought the thin ones were good or the thick ones."

After graduating from Concord High School, Mr. Todd spent nearly a year convalescing from tuberculosis before attending Dartmouth College, from which he graduated in 1940. Unsure of what to do next, he took aptitude tests and ended up working a couple of years for the company that administered the exams.

Then, much to his surprise, came the Army. He was called to service during World War II "two days after my tuberculosis doctor told me I wouldn't get drafted in a million years," Mr. Todd said in an interview for an oral history that has not been published. Stationed in South Boston, he served as a lieutenant overseeing personnel and logistics for troop assignments.

Mr. Todd and his wife, Virginia, met on a windjammer cruise in Maine and married in 1947.

Although birthright allowed him to take a management position with the family company after the war, Mr. Todd became a student of printing, frequenting the rare books area of the Boston Public Library to study early books published by printers who lent their names to typefaces.

In 1956, his father died, and he took over the business. Mr. Todd also helped run The Horn Book, which publishes a magazine and guide to children's literature. The Todd family began printing the magazine at its inception in 1924 and later became majority owner. Mr. Todd was publisher emeritus.

Anne Quirk, publisher of The Horn Book, wrote in a tribute posted on the company's website that "in his later years, in that deeply satisfying way in which life sometimes imitates art, Tom grew into his own sort of classic character, a blend of Homer Price and Mr. Putter. He took special care with all new hires, charming them with stories of his childhood roguery, then chilling them with cautionary tales of people who neglected to save enough in their youth. He was a vibrant, kind, and lovely man."

She added by phone: "I adored Tom. I knew him as a man who took great pleasure in every day."

"He was a gentleman first and foremost," his son said. "Old school, courtly, but at the same time he was a gentle nonconformist, and it was in little subtle ways he would do it. For example, he had the bushiest eyebrows, which he refused to let the barber cut, and he used it to great effect when communicating, but sometimes not for the desired effect. Often the first impression of people is that they were intimidated, and that was not who he was."

Employing a dry sense of humor, Mr. Todd "loved to make people smile," his son said.

"He was very athletic, very vigorous," said Roger Sutton, editor in chief of The Horn Book Magazine. "He was the only person I know whose eyes actually twinkled."

Just as vigorous on the chessboard, Mr. Todd would repair to his shipping department each day at lunch and play speed chess with the head shipper.

"They would complete 10 games and sometimes 15 games in a 48-minute period," his son said. "The 48-minute lunch was so that he could leave at 12 minutes to 5, walk to South Station, and catch the 5 o'clock train. At least that's what he told me."

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Todd leaves another son, Thomas of Lexington; a daughter, Rebecca of Arlington; and a granddaughter.

A memorial service will be held today at 10 a.m. in the Congregational Church of Littleton.

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