There was never any question for Sharon Fitzhenry about what she wanted to be when she grew up. She always knew she wanted to be a publisher.
The longtime Fitzhenry & Whiteside president and CEO, who died on August 26 at the age of 73, was famous for asking her nephew and nieces what their future career hopes were – and being astonished at the answer if it was indecisive.
“She was surprised when, in grade five, I did not know what I wanted to do in my life,” her niece Pamela Doll recalls with a laugh.
“She knew really, really early that she was going to be a publisher,” says her sister, and Fitzhenry & Whiteside COO, Holly Doll. “I waffled back and forth about things and she’d say, ‘Well, how do you not know? I knew right away what I wanted to be.’”
Fitzhenry took over the top spot at Fitz & Witz, as it has been colloquially known, in the mid-1990s, becoming the second generation to run the business her father, Robert Fitzhenry, started in 1966 with Cecil L. Whiteside. Fitzhenry & Whiteside had previously focused largely on distribution, but she expanded the company’s place in the industry, acquiring publishers and developing a robust trade publishing program, particularly in children’s books, nonfiction, and cookbooks.
Nevertheless, she kept a low profile. “She always preferred that the authors and the illustrators got [the media attention],” Holly Doll says. “She always liked to say, ‘flying under the radar.’”
Author and historian Bill Waiser, who published more than a dozen books under the Fifth House imprint, says Fitzhenry “lived books,” and appreciated them both as vessels of information as well as objects.
“Books mattered to Sharon above anything else,” he says. “She liked the feel of a book, the look of a book, the heft of a book.”
Nowhere was this passion for the printed word more apparent than at her home in Uxbridge, Ontario, where her personal library was estimated to include more than 10,000 titles. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves were double-stacked with volumes, with additional titles stored in boxes. She never accepted free books from other publishers, always paying for her books, and on her weekly visits to the library would rarely leave without purchasing a book from the sale rack there, her sister says. She read voraciously across genres, and not just books – Fitzhenry & Whiteside sales reps knew whenever they were out on the road to bring back a copy of the local newspaper for her.
When she saw the manuscript for Waiser’s Governor-General’s Award-winning A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905, she told him she wanted to give it her special treatment. The resulting book weighs almost four pounds and is printed on “wonderful paper” to do justice to all the illustrations Waiser included.
“It is a beautiful book because of Sharon,” Waiser says.
She had a knack for connecting authors and illustrators and she excelled at generating “ideas for the kinds of books that would be fun to produce, and books that people would be looking for,” Holly Doll says. “They weren’t necessarily the obvious ones.”
Managing director of Acacia House Bill Hanna, a friend and longtime industry stalwart, says Fitzhenry was “a tremendously gutsy person,” not just in her determination to continue working as her health failed, but for her publishing decisions throughout her career.
“I’d look at some of the things she would take on and produce stunningly beautiful books, and I would say to myself, okay, can you make these things work financially?” Despite the high production costs and sizeable print runs necessary to make a large-format art book profitable, Hanna says, “she could do it – and did.”
Her love of books was matched only by her love of animals. She bought a racehorse for one dollar when she heard it was going to be put down because of its injured leg and spent every night in the barn in all weather, reading to Reddy Fitz to keep him company. She also sent her local dog-catcher to Yellowknife to fetch a dog slated to be euthanized – a fact she learned from the local newspaper a rep brought back to her. The dog’s name was Sumatra but her nickname was Zoom Zoom, though she calmed down in short order after joining Fitzhenry’s household.
“She had to learn to be calm because Sharon would spend hours reading,” Holly Doll says. “She had to learn to spend a long time on the floor.”
Fitzhenry worked for Thomas Y. Crowell in New York for about a year in the late 1960s before it was bought by Harper. Her first full-time job at the family business was to run the school library department, and then she managed the company’s remainder division, Beaver Books, before taking on the role of sales manager at Fitzhenry & Whiteside. From there, she moved on to become the company president and CEO, but she remained involved in the company at the individual book level until she died.
“She was still thinking about grants and planning new books and talking to authors, and what were we going to do next season,” Doll says.
Fitzhenry, the eldest of three sisters, was pre-deceased by her parents, Bob and Hilda Fitzhenry, her sister Bridget, and her partner Sal Nasello. Her family is planning a celebration of her life for November 14. For more details, email [email protected].