Ralph S. Lehman passed away peacefully on November 21, 2019, at age 97. He was an extraordinary man who led an exemplary life of service. Ralph was known for his kindness, gentle strength, devotion to family, professional leadership, unquestionable integrity, commitment to social justice, generosity, cheerful disposition, and positive world view. He was greatly loved and admired by all who knew him.
Ralph Sanford Lehman was born on November 15, 1922, to Samuel and Clara Kennel Lehman in Beaver Falls, New York, the second child (and oldest son) of 13. Though his ancestors were Amish, his parents were members of the Amish Mennonite church. Ralph graduated from high school at age 16, the first in a large extended family to do so. He then helped his father on the dairy farm, in home construction, and in the woods making maple syrup for a year before applying to, and then hitchhiking to attend, Goshen College in Indiana, where he studied pre-med. In his senior year, he was drafted and served as a conscientious objector in Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps in Denison, Iowa, Poughkeepsie, New York, Grottoes, Virginia and Luray, Virginia. At the Hudson River State Hospital mental ward in Poughkeepsie, Ralph, along with others in the CPS unit, exposed institutionalized abuse of patients. Reforms in mental health treatment followed with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he met on two occasions, the second being a private audience with her over tea at her Hyde Park home in 1946.
Following discharge from CPS, he entered an extended period of largely administrative voluntary service in Florida, Mississippi, and Colorado. During this time, he decided to change his focus from medicine to mental health. In 1947, he secured a baseball scholarship and attended Bethel College in Kansas to complete his degree, graduating in 1948. While there he met his love, Evelyn Goering, and after teaching one year in Churchville High School near Rochester, New York, he returned to Kansas. He and Evelyn were married June 30, 1949. They were recruited by Mennonite Central Committee Voluntary Service and served as unit leaders at the Topeka State Hospital and the Menninger Clinic for one year. Ralph then attended University of Denver, graduating in 1951 with a Master’s Degree in Social Work, psychiatric sequence, and in Administration. Both of Ralph and Evelyn’s sons, Joseph Michael and Ralph Stephen, were born in Denver, where Ralph’s first post-master’s job was at General Rose Memorial Hospital.
Ralph was offered a job at a new psychiatric receiving hospital in Portsmouth, Ohio, where they lived until he took a job as Clinical Director of Boy’s Village in Smithville, Ohio. There, daughter Christine Ann was born. Later they moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he held the position of Clinical Director at Fort Wayne Children’s Home. Later, he served as Director of Care Services at the Summit County Family and Children’s Services in Akron, Ohio. Their daughter Mary was born during this time. After seven years there, he took the position of CEO at Edgewood Children’s Center in St. Louis, Missouri. He remained in that position for 21 years, transforming the facility to an expanded, model treatment center for children with severe emotional needs.
Ralph was a respected leader in his field throughout his career. He was an active member of the National Association of Social Workers and served as president of a local chapter. He helped found three state organizations–the Ohio Family and Children’s Services, the Indiana Childcare Association, and the Missouri Child Care Association–and was elected the first president of each. In 1987, he began a six-year term on the board of the Child Welfare League of America. In 1988, he was named Social Worker of the Year for the State of Missouri and then Outstanding Leader of the United Way of St. Louis. Upon his retirement, he received recognition from the Missouri State Legislature for his immeasurable contributions to his profession and relieving the suffering of children. In recognition of his distinguished leadership, Edgewood named a new school and therapy building after him.
After retiring in 1992, Ralph and Evelyn settled in Newton, Kansas, where they had met, volunteering locally. They also completed two three-month service terms at Koinonia Farms in Athens, Georgia, where they attended Sunday School taught by Jimmy Carter. They traveled to Europe three times, to South America, and to Alaska and Panama. Ralph also traveled with family members to India.
In 1983, Ralph and several of his siblings formed Samara Partners to continue the multi-generational family legacy of maple syrup production in Northern New York. Ralph was an enthusiastic syrup salesman, always eager to share the history and science of the process, and was affectionately known to many as “the maple syrup guy.” The business continues to operate as subsequent generations gather from across the country to maintain the tradition.
Ralph’s service extended well beyond his professional life. An advocate for social justice, he walked hand-in-hand with Reverend Ralph Abernathy at the Poor People’s March on Washington in 1964. He volunteered for Mennonite Disaster Service, responding when help was needed following tornados and other devastating events. He was a member of the Kiwanis service organization for more than 20 years, and he helped establish the First Church of Religious Science, now the Center for Spiritual Living, in St. Louis. He served on the Board of Bethel-Kidron Village, where he and Evelyn moved in 2005.
Ralph also made time to play and have fun. He found great joy in his large family, and gathered with them at reunions every year or two throughout his life, as well as during frequent visits in between. Baseball was a favorite pastime. Growing up, he and his six brothers and some brothers-in-law composed a whole team. He played catcher at college and attended games whenever he could thereafter. Ralph excelled at ping pong, board and card games, and enjoyed square dancing with Evelyn. He had a quick and amiable sense of humor that never offended. A naturally curious person and an avid reader, he consumed volumes of books, largely covering topics of history, religion, metaphysics, and philosophy. He was committed to spiritual development and consciously lived his values of selfless love, compassion, service, avoiding criticism, suspending judgement, and being ever available to help others navigate their challenges. Animals and children always gravitated to him, and he was an encouraging and inspiring teacher. The impact of his life’s work, emanating from his unconditional love and regard for all life, is lasting and transformative.
Ralph is survived by his wife of 70 years, Evelyn; sons Michael (Kathleen) of Wichita, Kansas, and Stephen (Kathy Childers) of St. Paul, Minnesota; daughters Christine (Richard Tilles) of Encinitas, California, and Mary Lehman Adams of Olympia, Washington; former international exchange student Fernando (Yvette Monroy) Reati of Atlanta, Georgia; eleven grandchildren; eleven great-grandchildren; three brothers, Lyle, Jim, and Gary; four sisters, Claramae, Bernice, Dolores, and Jane; and a host of nieces, nephews, and friends.
A celebration of life will be held Saturday, January 11, 2020, at 11:00 am at the Bethel College Mennonite Church, North Newton, Kansas, with a lunch following. Memorial donations in his name can be made to The Great Circle – Edgewood, attention advancements -IMO Ralph S Lehman 330 North Gore Avenue, Webster Groves, MO 63119, or Bethel College Mennonite Church, 2600 College Ave., Box 364 North Newton, KS, 67117.