Professor Robert Lehman led the way for EMU’s sustainability focus

Robert C. Lehman left an indelible mark on Eastern Mennonite University not only through his teaching — of physics, mathematics and astronomy from 1955 to 1980 — but also his firm commitment to and advocacy for the principles of sustainability.

During his 1977 sabbatical, Robert Lehman crunched numbers and lobbied administrators for energy-savvy changes.

“I feel that you are one of the core of what I think a Christian Mennonite should be,” noted his daughter Judy Lehman ‘79 in a 1980 letter to her father. “Conservation in lifetime — you’ve studied it into a science.”

One of the first to advocate for conservation on campus, Lehman’s interest, passion and research led him to urge administrators to take action. That action eventually involved many in the physical plant and other employees who helped make EMC, and then EMU, a leader among Virginia higher education institutions in sustainability efforts, long before such concepts were common currency.

Lehman was not only principled and innovative, but also gracious. After being featured in a 1976 Daily News-Record article for his energy-saving measures at EMC, he wrote a letter to the editor, sharing the acclaim. “Mr. [Herman] Schrock [director of the physical plant] has been working diligently ever since the oil embargo to conserve energy at EMC and deserves far more credit for what has been done than is due me.”

As you will see, Lehman’s contributions to energy conservation were still certainly worth the recognition.

View a timeline of sustainability on the EMC/EMU campus.

Back to EMC in 1955

Lehman came from an established lineage of area Mennonite educators: his father was C.K. Lehman, dean as well as Bible and seminary professor. Two sisters attended and then taught at EMC, Miriam Lehman ’54 Weaver, in the business department, and Esther K. Lehman ’49, in education. His niece Dorothy Jean Weaver ’72 currently teaches at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Another niece Carol Ann Weaver, recently retired from Conrad Grebel College, Waterloo, Ontario, taught music at EMC in the late ’70s.

A few years after graduating from EMC in 1950, Lehman attended a Mennonite youth convention in Kalona, Iowa, where he met Ruby Swartzendruber. After giving a mutual ride to the train station during the convention, he asked her to go out the next day – and the day after that, and the day after that for two weeks.

Teaching astronomy in 1958.

He got a job at a nearby turkey processing plant for those weeks, then spent the school year teaching at Franconia Mennonite School (now Penn View Christian School, Souderton, Pa.). Ruby started classes at Goshen College, alternating semesters with teaching stints, and Robert took a Mennonite Voluntary Service position in Iowa City. Ruby joined the service unit after they wed in 1954. EMC soon came knocking to offer him a faculty position and Lehman joined the science faculty in 1955.

Lehman helps design new Suter Science Center

While Robert taught at EMC and directed the Vesper Heights planetarium, Ruby worked as a teacher, earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Madison College and her education specialist degree at the University of Virginia. Robert led a Sputnik sighting team in 1957 from Vesper Heights, which radioed in the second observational fix in the United States.

The Suter Science Center with the white-domed planetarium visible. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

Lehman earned his master’s degree in biophysics in 1959 from Pennsylvania State University and continued his studies there as the first PhD student in the same academic program, graduating in 1962.

The Suter Science Center was completed in 1968. Lehman, who according to his former colleague John Horst played a role in its design, equipped the iconic domed Brackbill Planetarium with a state-of-the-art Spitz A-4 star projector. He hosted a showing of the Apollo 11 manned lunar mission on two televisions – one he had helped his eighth-grade son James build.

“The auditorium in the science center was completely packed,” says James Lehman. “People stayed all night until the ascent module lifted off.”

When not busy with academia, Lehman co-founded and was the first president of Park View Federal Credit Union, co-founded an alternative energy equipment supplier, raised four children and fielded many calls from radio stations and local residents, asking him to demystify unidentified flying objects.

Three of Lehman’s summers were spent in Penn State’s biophysics laboratory. His first sabbatical took the Lehmans to Atlanta, where he conducted cancer research at Emory University while Ruby taught social studies at a large, inner-city all-black high school. His second sabbatical became, arguably, his longest-lasting contribution to EMU: the first implementation of our environmental sustainability values.

Mending our ‘fuelish’ ways

Jim, Robert, Don, and Judy on the bikes in Harrisonburg. (Courtesy of Ruby Lehman)

Lehman’s investigation into energy usage at EMC began in the ‘70s. In his personal life, he biked to and from work and made energy-saving modifications to his home, such as a solar water heater. Lehman shared these values with his children, who became amateur investigators themselves on more than one occasion.

In 1974, his oldest and youngest children (Judy, then 19 and Doug, 11) decided to help. Hunting for excessive energy use, they found a pavement crack between the library and chapel that was emitting heat. The two ran home for eggs and a skillet. Doug Lehman ‘85 continues:

We first tried to fry an egg in the skillet and then we fried one on the pavement, and it fried quite nicely … We wrote in bold letters on the cement, ‘This is a horrible waste of energy. Here is the egg that we fried on the pavement this evening at 7:42 p.m.’ We signed the message with the following: J. D. Norwich Investigators Internationale. This was the moniker my sister and I used for all of our clandestine operations at the time.

A leaky steam system was to blame, and days later, EMC began repairs.

Lehman’s interest led to a year-long sabbatical project in 1976-77. Through extensive study, he identified key areas of wasted energy: poorly designed heating and cooling systems, inefficient and unnecessary lighting, and uninsulated windows and piping. He built a mini-computer from a kit to control and monitor various energy systems on campus, and set up an “energy awareness center” in the science department. The display provided a calibrated meter read-out of EMC’s daily energy use.

This research prompted EMC, to make several infrastructure changes that resulted in savings of $66,000 in utility costs in one year. In 1978, the board of trustees awarded Lehman with a “resolution of appreciation” commending his “self-initiated energy research project.”

In a 1979 article titled “Mending Our Fuelish Ways,” Lehman wrote prophetically:

“Each of us who packs his schedule so tightly that he must drive one-half mile to school and from one building to another is demonstrating that efficiency is a higher priority than energy conservation … Are we willing to add an ‘energy plank’ to our present ethical platform?

Today, it is clear that EMU has answered with a resounding “yes,” from our five-year Quality Enhancement Plan  to our commitment to climate neutrality by 2035  to our growing track record of environmentally sustainable infrastructure and initiatives.

To Maryland and Goucher College

When the physics major was eliminated in 1980, Lehman was also let go, but not without considerable support voiced by his colleagues on campus and off. He had earned much community goodwill from his work as first president of Park View Federal Credit Union, as well with other community organizations, including serving as president for the Homes Foundation, which built residences for low-income families in Timberville.

Lehman did not stay unemployed long. Through the American Association of Physics Teachers, he met representatives of Goucher College (Baltimore, Maryland) and was soon hired there as a physics professor. Their children grown, he and Ruby moved to Maryland, where Lehman also worked for Howard County School of Technology.

In 1986, the Lehmans, with Frank ‘62 and Evelyn Nice, started the North Baltimore Mennonite Church in their living room, which now boasts 110 members.

The Lehmans returned to Harrisonburg in 1999. Shortly afterward, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and eventually moved into the Oak Lea Nursing Home. Ruby recalls Robert looking inquisitively at an outlet in his room, and asking her to find out what energy-saving measures were being taken. Marv Nisly ‘68, then design and construction manager, provided a list from fluorescent lighting to thermal windows.

Robert passed away in 2009.

“If I were to describe my husband with a list of adjectives,” Ruby wrote in his memorial program, “I would say unpretentious, open, honest, inquiring, musical, loving, intelligent, grudge-free, other-worldly, practical, innovative, and LOGICAL.”