James O. Lehman '59, who passed away last week, was director of Hartzler Library from 1973-1998. He was also well known as a congregational historian. (Photos courtesy of EMU Archives)

James O. Lehman, librarian and congregational historian, was with Hartzler Library from the ‘Miracle Drive’ and beyond

James O. Lehman, who passed away at age 83 on Feb. 5, made an impressive mark as a historian and archivist and as director of libraries and assistant professor for Eastern Mennonite University.

He also wrote 10 congregational and community histories, including Sonnenberg: A Haven and a Heritage. He produced the “Directory of Mennonites, Amish, and other Anabaptist Groups in Virginia,” what the Shenandoah Mennonite Historian periodical called “probably the most comprehensive available listing of Anabaptist groups in Virginia.” He co-wrote the widely praised sourcebook Mennonites, Amish, and the American Civil War with Goshen College professor Steven M. Nolt in 2007 and penned dozens of articles.

“James O. Lehman is a modest man, deliberate, reserved, unruffled,” wrote former EMU academic dean and newly called interim president Lee Snyder in  a 1991 Mennonite Historical Bulletin article. When Lehman began discussing history, though, “his eyes light up, and he becomes animated,” Snyder noted.

Lehman confessed in a 2008 essay for the Valley Brethren-Mennonite Heritage Center that studying the past was not always enthralling back in his days as a student at Eastern Mennonite College.

“History was not always high in my priorities,” Lehman wrote. “I still have a college European history textbook from the early 50s on which I have scribbled the words on the outside edge, ‘In case of flood stand on me; I’m dry!’

“But in 1957-58,” Lehman continued, “Dr. Irvin B. Horst’s marvelous course on American Mennonite history hooked me for life!”

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James O. Lehman in the new Hartzler Library building.

Lehman went on to graduate from EMC with a bachelor’s degree in social sciences in 1959 and completed a Master of Library Science and post-master’s work at Kent State University while also serving as a librarian and teacher in his home area of Kidron, Ohio.

He eventually returned to Eastern Mennonite as an assistant librarian and assistant professor in 1969. He became director of libraries in 1973, serving until his retirement in 1998.

Early in his tenure, he aided the “miracle drive” that raised more than $100,000 in a single weekend in December 1969, providing the needed funds that allowed the new library building, later named the Sadie A. Hartzler Library, to be built. Lehman wrote about the event in a 1971 issue of EMC Bulletin, the precursor to Crossroads. He titled his recollections “A Modern-Day Miracle in Three Acts,” and called it “the most dramatic fund-raising event” in the school’s history.

Lehman oversaw the moving of library materials to the new building in 1971, improved a variety of library processes, started an interlibrary loan program and arranged reciprocal borrowing agreements with James Madison University.

He also served on the Mennonite Church Historical Committee for 13 years, served as archivist for the Virginia Mennonite Conference and was president of the Eastern Mennonite High School Alumni Association.

Outside of his historical work, Lehman enjoyed traveling extensively with his wife, Dorothy (Amstutz), whom he married in 1953, and volunteering with various church-related programs. He was a member of Lindale Mennonite Church.

Dorothy survives along with five children and their families, including seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

That was Lehman’s real treasure, says Lois Bowman, faculty member emerita and librarian at EMU from 1963 to 2014 and next-door neighbor to the Lehmans for 30 years.

“He loved research and all that,” Bowman says, “but first and foremost he was a family man, especially after his grandchildren came along.”

A memorial service will take place Saturday, Feb. 13, at 11 a.m. at Lindale Mennonite Church, conducted by pastors Duane Yoder and Dawn Monger. The family will receive friends on Friday, Feb. 12, from 6-8 p.m. at the church. Online condolences can be made at www.mcmullenfh.com.