Jay Lehman was the kind of man that you might meet only once in a lifetime. He embodied the very values of the community in which he was born, lived, and worked.
Jay died recently at age 91. He was the founder of the old-time general store Lehman’s in Kidron, Ohio. I was fortunate to have known him as both a friend and a business leader. Scores of others can say the same thing about Jay.
That, however, is what impressed me so much about the man. We weren’t close as friends go, and we didn’t run in the same social circles. And, yet, whenever he saw me, he always went out of his way to call me by name, say hello, shake my hand firmly, and ask how I was doing. Jay was a good listener.
I got to know Jay the best through a cooperative marketing group that I facilitated. The original group included six Amish country, family-owned and operated businesses with a single location. Lehman’s was a founding member.
Jay started his little hardware and household goods business in 1955 at the crossroads of his rural hometown village. His original purpose provided necessary lifestyle items for the Amish community that surrounded Kidron.
Over time, the store’s purpose ironically flipped, becoming more of a tourist destination in Amish country. Jay embraced that change without losing sight or letting go of his and the community’s core values.
Faith, family, community, and a strong work ethic fulfilled humbly reflected not only the area’s priorities but Jay’s, too. Jay modeled those qualities in his personal and business life. That’s what made both Jay and his company tick.
In that success, Jay honored those values. He lived his faith by supporting the church and charities that he cherished. Even in a crowd of hundreds at statewide church conferences, Jay would acknowledge people by name and ask how they were doing. It might have been years since he had seen them. He understood the worth of healthy relationships.
That, in part, is what drew folks to Jay. He possessed a quiet, confident demeanor, and yet humility formed the mantle of his character. Even Lehman’s tagline reflects that concept: “For a simpler life.”
Jay saw the future in the past. He preserved anything of locally historical value for posterity and education. A walk through the store reveals hundreds of antique relics that would have been lost were it not for Jay’s foresight. If you want, you can have lunch at Lehman’s while sitting in the old town jail.
Jay enjoyed the simple life, but he certainly was not a simple man. He loved a good “Rook” game with friends and family as much as he enjoyed traveling. Future generations were as vital to him as his Swiss ancestors, which he revered.
As the company grew and expanded, family members, friends from church and community joined in to help him run the store. When he reached retirement age, he passed the leadership on to the next generation. But he continued to be a dynamic presence at Lehman’s.
It was a joy to watch customers recognize Jay as he strolled around his much-expanded corner store. He was the living icon of Lehman’s, now an international business.
Jay’s legacy will live on through his successful entrepreneurship and his lifetime of kindness and generosity. Living those essential core values shaped that legacy.
His was a compassionate life. Jay lived not just for himself, but for all whom he so tenderly touched far beyond the little town of Kidron, Ohio.
© Bruce Stambaugh 2020
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