Heritage and Imagination: Pat Mikelson and the Highlights for Children Records at University Libraries

Photo of Pat Mikelson with her husband, John, and their dog Reda. Pat is holding Reda and smiling, standing just behind John.
Pictured: Pat Mikelson, her husband John, and their dog Reda

For Pat Mikelson, Highlights Magazine is a way of life.

“My first memories are of my parents working for Highlights,” she says. “My mother handled the direct mail, which was all done from our house. At age 5, I knew the alphabet and would help organize cards. I vividly remember sitting in front of the TV and watching Howdy Doody and alphabetizing cards.”

Pat would go on to become the first family member of her generation to join the Highlights Magazine board of directors for a two-year term. As part of her responsibilities, Mikelson’s brother, then CEO of the company, asked her to gather stories from individuals who were instrumental in the early years of Highlights. Through these interviews and other experiences, Mikelson became the company’s de facto historian.

“I started working for Highlights when I was 50,” says Mikelson. “Originally, I joined to help solve some difficult telemarketing problems, which I had no experience with, but had experience working with women and working in sales. I started going to conferences and conventions and meeting the general public. When people see Highlights, they will come up and say, ‘oh my goodness, this was so important to me as a child – we love this magazine.’ One woman who was handed a magazine clasped it to her body, closed her eyes and said, ‘no wait, I’m having an experience.’”

These types of experiences are what inspire Mikelson and drive her passion for the company.

“I have a tremendous connection to the Highlights philosophy, which was ingrained at birth,” says Mikelson. “How you treat people and how you treat children. Respect and doing what’s right when no one is looking. A child getting thrilled by learning and creativity and imagination. These beliefs were always present in my house growing up.”

The family’s enthusiasm for imagination and love of children led them to collect and store submissions from their young readers.

“A lot of what we had were children’s drawings and contributions: letters, drawings, poetry, etc.,” she says. “The company had saved everything from the early 1980s, and those things used to be stored in an old barn in Honesdale, Pennsylvania among haystacks. There were more than 1200 boxes in total. No one in the family throws anything away.”

A row of shelves in a barn, filled with storage boxes labeled "drawings," "poems," "letters to the editor," "misc.," and more. Several people stand at the end of the row talking.
The Highlights for Children Records in their original home: a barn in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.

Understanding the potential research value the collection provided, Mikelson and her husband, John, decided that the collection needed a more permanent home.

“John said, ‘Why not call Ohio State?’ I didn’t think Ohio State would have any interest in the collection, but I finally got so irritated with John that I called,” she says. “After making a blind call, I was put through to Joe Branin, Director of University Libraries at the time. I consider it kismet; he says he never answered his phone while he was walking to class, but for some reason, he decided to do so that day.”

The call was followed by a series of meetings with Dr. Geoff Smith, then Head of the Rare Books & Manuscripts Library, and after signing an agreement, all 1200 boxes were shipped from the Pennsylvania barn to the university.

“When Geoff opened the first box, there was a nest in it,” Mikelson recalls. “He called me and I laughed – what did he expect from boxes stored in a barn?”

Although the collection had humble beginnings, Mikelson knows that students and researchers will benefit from access to the materials.

“Earlier this year, Highlights’ editors utilized the archive at Thompson Library, using the letters to the editor for a ‘Dear Highlights’ book,” she says. “The editor-in-chief said if it hadn’t been for the Libraries’ organization, description and attention to detail, this wouldn’t have been possible.”

“This collection will give researchers insight into how children think, develop, draw, express themselves in drawing and words, how child development has changed, how society has been expressed through magazines and how my grandparents’ philosophy has been sustained,” says Mikelson. “I hope that this collection will be a vibrant resource that has wide use for students from Ohio State or elsewhere.”

To learn more about the Highlights collection at University Libraries, visit the Highlights for Children Records Page.