The Collector: A Few Recollections
by Russell Clayton
Among the few people who have touched my life in a truly meaningful way, Athos and Sara Menaboni figure largely; my close relationship with them affected me profoundly.
I became acquainted with them in a roundabout way. I was pen pals with Robert W. Woodruff, a former president and chairman of the Board of Directors of The Coca-Cola Company, for several years while I was in high school and college. One day while shopping at Rich’s, Atlanta’s oldest and at the time most popular department store, I noticed a book entitled Menaboni’s Birds, written by Sara and suddenly remembered that Athos was the artist who for many years painted the birds for Mr. Woodruff’s Christmas cards. I glanced through the book and noticed right away that it included many paintings that I recognized as having appeared in the Christmas card series. I had to have a copy for my library because of the Woodruff references, but I quickly began to develop an appreciation for Athos as an artist. As I read Sara’s account of their life together, I grew to admire this man whose paintings illustrated her words.
A few years later, my interests in both Athos Menaboni and Coca-Cola came together when I discovered a small home calendar he had illustrated for The Coca-Cola Company. I soon learned it was the only calendar ever produced featuring his art, and as fate would have it, it was for 1959, the year I was born.
After several months had passed, I was told that Sara and Athos still lived in Atlanta and thought it would be nice to have my book autographed. To my delight, they were listed in the phonebook! I gathered up my courage, made the call, and, from our brief conversation, a friendship was born. Athos told me that his wife was in the hospital with a broken leg, but when she returned home he wanted me to come for a visit rather than send the book in the mail to him for autographing as I had suggested.
I believe that the Menabonis were interested in me because I was a teacher and they had a great love for children and education. Of course, I was thrilled to be invited to the home of these local celebrities and could hardly wait to meet them. The visit was exciting and I will never forget how delicious the homemade lemonade tasted. We talked for several hours, wandering through any number of subjects: Italy, other countries they had visited, and intriguing people they had met. I also enjoyed being shown the paintings hanging on the walls of nearly every room and then stood in awe when I was allowed to enter his studio. As I drove home, I was thinking how fortunate I was to have met these two delightful and special people.
A few weeks later, Sara called to invite me back for “supper.” I was elated to hear from her and of course accepted the invitation. After that evening, we had phone conversations on a regular basis and I went to their home at least once a month until their deaths.
A highlight of my life was their visiting my home for dinner. Athos enjoyed and seemed
surprised that I had a “Menaboni Room.” He was a humble and unassuming man, but seemed
truly flattered that I had dedicated that space in my house to his work.
The Menabonis’ life has had a lasting impact on my own. Since that first meeting, I have never looked at a flower, admired a bird, or watched the sun rise or set through the same eyes. Their love and enjoyment of life and nature has inspired the same in me. They were lifelong learners and always shared their knowledge and varied interests with their many devoted friends; those who knew Sara and Athos will always remember them with admiration and deep affection.
The administration of Kennesaw State University and I are indebted to the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation for supporting our efforts to honor one of Georgia’s most prominent artists. I can say without hesitation that Sara and Athos would be extremely grateful and honored.