A Man Of Distinction

92-Year-Old Harold Lehman Considered Madison’s Oldest Living Male Graduate

Posted: January 26, 2013

Harold Lehman, 92, of Harrisonburg, is believed to be the oldest living male graduate of Madison College, the forerunner to today’s James Madison University. (Photo by Nikki Fox / DN-R)
HARRISONBURG — Harold Lehman has lived within the same one-mile radius practically since his birth in 1921.
 
Practically, but not quite.   
 
During World War II, he was a part of the first team of teachers at a New Jersey school for the mentally handicapped. That’s when he married his wife of 67 years, Ruth, who died in May.
 
“We were intent on waiting until the war was over to marry, but the war lasted pretty long,” he explained with a hearty laugh. 
 
Years later, he spent some time in London, and took trips to Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Denmark, among other locations.
 
But to Lehman, the Park View neighborhood has always been home.
 
“When I grew up, that was all pastureland,” he said Friday, looking out from his fifth-story Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community window, a short hike from his childhood home on College Avenue. 
 
Lehman, believed to be the oldest living male graduate of Madison College, turns 92 today.
 
“He’s one of few males, if not the first male, who came back for his 70th class reunion,” said Steve Smith, James Madison University associate vice president for constituent relations, referring to a celebration held last year
 
Two or three other ’42 grads returned for the event, Smith noted, but they were all women.
 
When Lehman attended Madison College, the forerunner to today’s JMU, it was years before men were accepted as regular day      students. So, he earned his degree over several summers, making sure to follow all the rules that don’t exist anymore, such as dating restrictions and a 7 p.m. curfew.
 
“It was a different place then,” he said, admitting that he never expected it to become what it is today.
 
He grew with the university, where he spent almost 20 of his 45 teaching years. Lehman taught students everywhere from elementary schools and now-Eastern Mennonite University to his alma mater before ultimately retiring from JMU in 1986.
 
Lehman’s status as Madison’s oldest living male graduate is likely as much of a surprise to others as it was to him upon hearing the news last year.
 
After all, Lehman is an agile, sharp, earnest 92-year-old who spits out dates and details from decades past as quick as a whip. Ask him to point out one of his four sons — who are all college professors themselves — in a picture or to grab a treasured book, and he’ll jump at the chance.
 
Charles Blair, who served as head of the department of early and middle education at JMU before retiring, remembers attending a religious ceremony a number of years ago to discover that Lehman was singing in the service.
 
“And then, in talking to him, I found out that he’d played tennis earlier that morning and was leaving for Europe that afternoon,” Blair said. “I think that’s living a pretty well-rounded life.”
 
In addition to staying active throughout his life, Lehman could have one of his favorite pastimes — researching and documenting historical places — to thank for his longevity.
 
The most recent contribution to his résumé? is an essay about the history of Assembly Park, now dubbed Park Woods. He wrote the piece about a year ago. 
 
His words explain how the park tucked between EMU and his current residence has transformed from a bustling gathering place to a ghost of its former self.
 
The railroad that once ran near the park offered a round-trip ticket between Winchester and Assembly Park for $1.60, he explains. Thousands would travel to the site for various community events, including the beginnings of the Rockingham County Fair.
 
It’s not surprising that what he loves to write about is the community he can’t seem to leave for long.
 
Contact Candace Sipos at 574-6275 or csipos@dnronline.com



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