TOM LEHMAN, center, is congratulated by his law partner J. Richard Porter, left, after being sworn in as an officer of the court in November 1974 by the late Judge Robert E.L. Culpepper. From day one Lehman says he has been doing work for the Grady County School System. He continues to serve as the school board’s local counsel. Messenger file photo
Prominent Cairo attorney Thomas L. (Tom) Lehman is marking a milestone this month, mainly through strolls down memory lane with some leading him all the way back to the Ohio dairy farm of his childhood.
It was 45 years ago this month that Lehman pulled into Cairo, mere weeks after graduating from law school, and settled into the community with his wife, Carol.
Raised a Mennonite in the small village of West Liberty, Ohio, Lehman, now 74, was the oldest of seven children and learned early the lessons of hard work on a family farm.
“I had to be up at 5:30 every morning to milk the cows before school,” Lehman recalls. A second milking of the registered Holsteins took place every afternoon, a chore Lehman had to fit in even if he had after-school activities.
Still, he managed to compete in sports and succeed in academics. Due to a prevalence of Mennonites in the community, West Liberty-Salem High School had limited social engagements. “We didn’t have any dances, but we sure did do a lot of singing,” Lehman recalls.
A life on the farm was the hope of Lehman’s father for his eldest son, but a gift from an uncle when Lehman was about 16 changed the trajectory of his life plans. The uncle was an educator, and gave him two boxes of textbooks. Because space was limited in their home, though, Lehman’s mother urged him to keep only six, and he selected mainly books on history. “I read them cover to cover,” Lehman says.
Reading about important figures in history made an impression on the teenaged Lehman. “On reflection, that’s probably what got me thinking seriously about being an attorney. . . . Dad wasn’t keen on it,” Lehman says.
When he earned a state agriculture scholarship that gave him free tuition to the College of Agriculture at Ohio State University, Lehman promised his father that he could combine agriculture with the law, graduate in 12 quarters and cover any additional costs outside room and board.
While studying for his bachelor’s degree in Ag. Economics, Lehman also threw himself into student life. Active in his fraternity, Alpha Gamma Rho, Lehman rose through the ranks to president; was a member of the Freshman Senate, University Senate, a campus service club, both Junior and Senior Men’s Honorary, and Homecoming committee. He was honored as outstanding fraternity member and the outstanding senior in the College of Agriculture and Home Economics. He also won a national award for his fraternity.
It looked like his future was fated when he chaired the Miss Ohio State University pageant his senior year and struck up a friendship with “Miss Florida” who was scheduled to perform during the contest. She was attending college in Miami, and suggested Lehman attend law school there. Smitten, he applied to and was accepted to the University of Miami School of Law.
As his college graduation arrived, Lehman says he picked up the phone and called freshman Carol Venters. “I got serious about her over the summer and Miss Florida got less and less important,” Lehman says. Still, when it was time to go, Lehman moved to Miami and completed one year of law school.
Meanwhile, he applied to transfer to Ohio State University School of Law. “I got my acceptance to Ohio State University Law one day and my draft notice the next day,” he says. “Here I am, all these plans just gone down the tube.”
Another real concern was as a Mennonite, Lehman had registered for the draft as a conscientious objector. “Mennonites take ‘Thou shalt not kill’ literally,” Lehman explains. Learning of an open teaching position in his home school system, Lehman applied and was hired to teach middle school science and coach middle school football, basketball and track. The superintendent said the job would grant Lehman a year’s deferment.
Knowing he would have to serve his country for two years through the Alternative Service Program, Lehman proposed marriage to Venters. “I knew that Carol wasn’t going to be there if I took off for two years. She is too good a person for anybody to pass up,” says Lehman. “I had never really been serious about anyone; she was a little bit different.”
Venters completed her junior year of college then married Lehman in June 1969. Days later, the couple entered the Alternative Service Program together, and moved to Brazil where Tom Lehman worked with local farmers and Carol Lehman started a local library.
When his service was coming to an end in 1971, Lehman reapplied to transfer to OSU School of Law, but this time he was rejected. College representatives told Lehman they were not accepting any transfer students due to a large number of veterans returning home and applying to college.
A chance meeting with an OSU Agriculture Economics professor traveling in Brazil resulted in Lehman entering a masters program at OSU where he was paid to do research as a graduate assistant. The job allowed Carol Lehman to return to OSU and complete her senior year and earn her bachelor’s degree while Tom earned his masters. The next year he entered University of Georgia School of Law. Carol Lehman worked as a teacher and also entered UGA to earn her masters degree.
Ready to graduate with his law degree, Tom Lehman set about deciding where he wanted to work. Using 1969-1970 population and agricultural statistics, Lehman selected 10 Georgia communities as prospects and then narrowed that list down to three: Grady, Morgan and Bulloch counties. “I wanted to be a lawyer in a rural area with good, general farming,” says Lehman.
Although he was offered jobs at a law firm in New York City, and at UGA, it was Cairo that won out and he soon began working with attorney J. Richard Porter, now a senior Superior Court Judge. Lehman learned in late October 1974 that he had passed the bar examination and in November, Judge Robert E.L. Culpepper swore him in as an officer of the court. Soon, the law firm became known as Porter & Lehman. Through the years, the firm’s name has changed, but Lehman has remained the constant.
Carol Lehman taught elementary school in Grady County and the couple had two sons, T.J. and Tim, each Star Student of his graduating class at Cairo High School, each a college graduate and each a father of two daughters and one son. The six grandchildren range in age between 3 and 12.
Now that he’s celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary and 45th work anniversary, is Lehman thinking about retirement? “I’d like to someday. At this point, I take it one day at a time,” he says.
But, after having bypass surgery in 2003 and a stent implanted in 2013, Lehman says he has worked to reduce his stress. He says he works on his small “farm”, makes sure to get plenty of sleep, and tries to relax. “I have always burned the candle at both ends,” he admits.
Through the years, he has been an active member of the community both professionally and civically. He has served as president of the Cairo-Grady County Chamber of Commerce and twice organized its leadership program, served as Sunday school teacher at Cairo First United Methodist Church for 37 years, and will celebrate 45 years of membership in Cairo Rotary Club next month.
Professionally, he has served as counsel for all branches of government in Grady County and helped develop the Joint Development Authority.
Currently, he serves as attorney for the City of Cairo, Grady County Board of Education and the J.D.A.
“I enjoy working with the governmental units. It’s my way of being involved in the community through politics without getting elected,” he says.
Looking back over his time in Cairo, Lehman says he is content. “You always wonder what would have been, but I am not at all dissatisfied with what has happened in my life,” Lehman says.
“You can find good people everywhere.”