People need help, so Jay helps
Retired Ohio merchant has a global perspective
Jay Lehman has seen and done a lot in 90 years. He learned something when he was younger that still resonates: “So many people need help. I wanted to help.”
Jay went to Germany to help people whose homes were destroyed in World War II. He drove and repaired trucks for volunteers who built houses, strengthening his heart for service and picking up a lot of mechanical knowledge.
He also spent 10 years in Africa, assisting missionaries, church groups and others with their travel arrangements.
Jay, of Kidron, Ohio, is a longtime supporter of Mennonite organizations that extend helping hands around the globe – especially MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates) and MCC.
When his wife, Ella Mae, died in 1999, he set up a scholarship in her name at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, that aids women from around the world.
In Kidron, Jay has supported such causes as the volunteer fire department, community park and historical society.
He’s also been a conservationist for years, planting about 25,000 trees. “I was thinking long term,” Jay said, “planting slow-growing trees because I wanted to benefit the next generation.”
The man who started the store
In and around Kidron, people know Jay as the founder of Lehman Hardware and Appliances, a business he started in 1955 that’s known for its “low-tech items in a high-tech world.”
Lehman’s catered largely to Amish customers in the early days, offering home and farm supplies and equipment that didn’t need electricity. The business still has Amish customers, but the clientele is more diverse today.
Running Lehman’s gave Jay a chance to fix things, which he enjoyed. “We did a lot of repairing, and that’s what I really liked,” he said.
Galen Lehman, President of Lehman Hardware and Jay’s son, calls his dad “a mechanical genius. He’s constantly trying to find ways to make things work better.”
One example is Jay’s washing machine innovation. Jay figured his customers who didn’t use electricity would appreciate the convenience of an automatic washing machine.
Others had tried replacing a Maytag washer’s electric motor with a gasoline engine, but “the machine would shake itself apart” because of the vibration, Galen said.
Jay wasn’t ready to accept that the modification couldn’t be done successfully, so he invented a way of attaching a gasoline engine that dampened the vibration.
Galen said, “The popularity of his system made Lehman’s the largest wringer washing machine dealer in the world, and it’s still being used half a century later.”
Jay will make it work
If there’s a way to make something work, Jay is determined to find it, Galen said. While Jay was in Germany, the truck he was driving couldn’t climb a hill. He pulled off to the side and did some complex repairs even though all he had were simple tools. His explanation? “I just didn’t have enough power to get up that hill with my load.”
Jay opened his store at 7 a.m., six days a week, when Lehman’s was getting started. The end of the business day wasn’t quitting time for Jay. He loaded his pickup truck and delivered merchandise until lights in the farmhouses were turned off – his signal to head home.
In addition to serving the Amish, Jay’s goal was for Lehman’s to preserve the past for future generations, which it has done.
Producers of several movies – including Gangs of New York, Cold Mountain and The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford – used merchandise from Lehman’s because they wanted historically accurate period pieces in their films.
World events shake things up
The store’s focus on low-tech items – from reel (human-powered) lawnmowers to non-electric lamps and lanterns – can make Lehman’s a center of attention during turbulent times.
A 1973 OPEC oil embargo/energy crisis sent gasoline prices soaring, and a growing number of people embraced the idea of conserving natural resources.
Interest in the non-electric gear Lehman’s sells grew dramatically, noted Glenda Lehman Ervin, Vice President of Marketing for Lehman’s and Jay’s daughter.
“Suddenly, more people were concerned about fossil fuels and wanted wood stoves,” Glenda said.
The Y2K scare impacted Lehman’s in 1999, when worries grew that electric utilities might shut down when the calendar shifted to Jan. 1, 2000.
“People were worried about electricity, banking, groceries, airline flights,” Glenda said. Phones in the store were ringing pretty much all day, every day.
Bringing people to Kidron
Lehman’s evolved into more than a hardware and appliance store over the years. It became an attraction, which has helped it endure since 1955.
“The store is fun, engaging – it’s a destination,” Glenda said. “We see a lot of people coming here as families. Other people may sell some of the same things we do. The difference is we have the knowledge. We know how things work, how to use them.”
Bruce Breckbill worked at Lehman’s for 19 years before joining Everence® Financial in April 2018 as a Stewardship Consultant.
Bruce said that when Jay was working on the sales floor, he wasn’t the type of business owner who pushed customers to buy more.
“That’s the key to who Jay is,” Bruce said. “He was not trying to sell as much as possible or get people to buy more expensive products.”
Helping people is what he’s all about
Jay maintains a “reasonable, don’t-go-overboard attitude. He is all about helping people,” Bruce said.
Bruce also knew Jay through church, because Bruce taught a Sunday school class that included Jay. Bruce remembers Jay talking about climate change. “He’d say, ‘All the stuff we’re putting into the air has got to be affecting the Earth.’ He was saying this 20 years ago.”
Jay’s concern for people all over the world stands out to David Miller, an Everence Charitable Services Representative, who said, “Jay is a person who’s keenly aware of global issues, and thinks about how he relates to those issues and how the church should relate to those issues.”
David has known Jay since before David joined Everence in 2010 and learned that Jay had set up a donor advised fund through Everence.
The charitable family fund later was divided into five funds – for Jay and his four children. The funds provide a way for family members to choose charities to receive regular gifts.
Galen took over day-to-day responsibilities for the business years ago, but Jay didn’t fully retire from Lehman’s until spring 2019. He likes to keep busy.
“I enjoyed doing it,” Jay said, reflecting on his career. “I particularly liked the idea of fixing things.”
A biblical reminder
And he’s always felt a call to be helpful, as Galen and Glenda will attest.
They remember Jay reciting a Bible verse many times when they were growing up – “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded,” from the book of Luke.
Galen said, “When we ask him what the secret of his success is, he says, ‘I just try to treat people how I want to be treated.’”
Glenda says, “He’s always been philanthropic, and not just because he was successful. If he had 10 dollars, he gave away one.”