Joyce Lehman will turn 75 next week and reflects back to her childhood — to the Sunday afternoons when she’d sit in a living-room corner of her parents’ farmhouse in rural Iowa. All of their friends and relatives would gather round for lively conversation and colorful storytelling.
They were all Mennonites and Amish living in a farming community near the small town of Kalona, descendants of German settlers who had first arrived there from Alsace-Lorraine in the early to mid-1800s.
“It was an extended household. My grandparents were there, in a house nearby,” she says. It was a close-knit, nurturing environment with strong religious overtones and an ever-present sense of family history and traditions.
She would soak up all that the adults would talk about at these sessions and was enthralled by the tales of travel and adventure that her father and uncle would retell.
Her father had traveled extensively on a cattle boat delivering beef to Europe immediately after World War II, and her uncle at a young age had sold his horse and purchased passage to Europe to attend the 1924 Olympics. The Paris games were memorialized by the film “Chariots of Fire,” which tells the true story of two long-distance runners, Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew who runs to overcome prejudice.
Those conversations were when Lehman’s sense of wanderlust began, and it has hardly abated over the years. On a wall of her downtown Keene condominium is a world map, with hundreds of colored pushpins indicating the places she has lived, worked or visited.
She now works as a technical adviser and consultant to international agencies that facilitate what are called financial inclusion and enterprise projects, helping those in poverty start businesses. Her concentration is in helping women-owned operations.
Among the groups she works with are the Aga Khan Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Boulder Institute of Microfinance, Mastercard Foundation, Islamic Investment & Finance Cooperative in Afghanistan, World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Appreciating her story requires both an awareness of geography and an understanding of what it means to be Mennonite and Amish.
Many people’s perception of both denominations is limited to the stereotypical picture of people from Lancaster, Pa. — men in black hats and women with their heads covered, riding in a horse-drawn carriage down a rural road.
Although sharing common roots, Mennonites like Lehman do not eschew modern technology as the Amish do. Central to the theology and lifestyle of both sects is pacifism and charity, and a deep dedication to following Christ’s example and teachings.
Lehman attended a one-room elementary school, then high school at the Iowa Mennonite School in Kalona. From there, she graduated from Eastern Mennonite College (now university) in Harrisonburg, Va., with a degree in mathematics. She’d been inspired to pursue the subject by a grade-school teacher who’d spotted her interest in it and handed her high-school mathematics textbooks to study. She has two paintings on the wall of her home by that teacher, given to her by his widow.
Significant influences in her life, besides her father and mother, were her uncle and her grandfather, who was 75 when she was born.
As a young girl during the Cold War, she recalls partaking in the drills that were common then; even in her one-room schoolhouse, students would practice crouching under their desks in case of nuclear war.
“My grandfather was furious at that — that we were taught to be afraid of the Russians. He said, ‘You do not scare children; they should not learn to be afraid,’ ” she says. “He explained that we weren’t that different from them, that somewhere in Russia was a grandfather reading to his granddaughter, just as he was doing to me.”
Lehman married just a couple of days after her college graduation, to a classmate at Eastern Mennonite, and for the next five years, she taught school in West Branch, Iowa, the hometown of President Herbert Hoover. While living there, she met former President and first lady Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. Both were in West Branch visiting the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.
“Of course, we were not big fans of LBJ because of the war in Vietnam, but he was very impressive — a big man with a booming voice,” she recalls. Much later, in Keene, she met another large-in-stature president with a booming voice, Bill Clinton. “I was a big supporter of his,” she adds.
After teaching in West Branch, she and her husband, Carroll Lehman, moved to Oregon and then Washington state. In 1979, they moved to Keene with their two children, where her husband took a job as a professor of music at Keene State College.
She says New England was a difficult transition for her because of the tendency of Yankees to keep to themselves and to not always immediately welcome newcomers as in her native Iowa.
“We moved here in January, and I didn’t meet one neighbor until spring,” she says.
To this day, there are some aspects of the Midwest she misses dearly — among them the vast and unending horizons of Iowa and the rolling hills from which you can watch sunsets that seem to last for hours.
Because her husband’s salary at the college was modest for the family of four, she knew she had to get a job to make ends meet. In the past, she’d assisted people in preparing income tax forms; in fact, her first job at age 15 was typing tax returns. She thought that might be the ticket to a job in Keene, since it was January and tax season.
“I pulled out the yellow pages and looked up accounting firms. I called one, and the next week I was working there,” she says.
In the following years, as she and her husband raised their two children, Scott and Regina, she earned her degree in taxation from Bentley College (now university) in Waltham, Mass., as well as her certification as a CPA, and became a founder of the Lehman-Wilkinson public accounting firm in Keene.
Lehman describes the time between ages 53 and 55 as “transition years,” when she pondered her situation and wondered if there was more to life than being an accountant and living in Keene. Her marriage had by then dissolved, the kids had grown up, and she was in a quandary about her future.
One night in 1996, while driving home on Massachusetts Route 2 after a service at the Mennonite Congregation of Boston in Cambridge, she happened to be listening to a talk radio show. The author Robert Fulghum was being interviewed. Fulghum came to prominence in the late 1980s when his first book, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for nearly two years. He was being asked to talk about his new book, “From Beginning to End — The Rituals of Our Lives.”
“My ‘road to Damascus’ moment came,” Lehman says, a reference to St. Paul’s conversion to Christianity, while listening to that interview.
“The interviewer asked him this question: ‘You talk a lot about death, about what people think about death. Why?’ He answered that it’s only when people know they’re going to die that they get started going about living.”
That comment changed her life.
“I was thinking, ‘Do I want to be 20 years from now doing what I’m doing today?’ The answer was a resounding ‘No!’ But then there was a deafening silence: What was I going to do?”
She made two lists. “One I wrote down what I needed to do, and on the other I wrote what I wanted to do.”
She soon received a phone call from a friend who asked her if she’d be interested in taking a sabbatical from her work to teach business for one year at Goshen College in Indiana, a Mennonite-affiliated institution, to fill a vacancy by a faculty member who’d left.
She accepted the position, not necessarily because she yearned to be a college teacher, but felt it might be the spark to lead her in a different direction.
After that stint, she returned to Keene and resigned her position at the accounting firm in 1999.
Then the second part of her life unfolded, with a job opportunity with the Mennonite Economic Development Associates in its Washington, D.C., office. The Waterloo, Ontario, organization assists entrepreneurs in developing countries build stronger businesses and more prosperous lives, working with clients and local partners to create lasting and sustainable solutions to poverty.
“I did not know a soul (in Washington), and I was embarking on this whole new life,” she says.
The work with MEDA took her to Kabul, Afghanistan, where she ended up living for four years.
“I started from scratch there building a women’s micro-finance program,” she explains. “Over my time there I got a real sense of the Afghan people; I was in their homes, I went to their weddings and engagement parties, I saw their daily lives.”
For the first two years, working for MEDA, she lived in a dormitory-like setting with other foreigners, she being the only American, since Americans tended to live in compounds with heavy security.
In her last two years there, now working with the U.S. Agency for International Development, she moved to the top floor of a newly built Kabul hotel and was required to have a personal bodyguard and driver.
“I learned something important in Afghanistan: that all people want the same things,” she says. “They all want to provide for their families; they want food, education, security and health care, and that doesn’t matter where they are or who they are.”
In January 2008, just a month after leaving Kabul, she took a job with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, working as a program officer in its Financial Services for the Poor office. She worked there until 2012. This was a fortuitous move for her, as it placed her near where her children live.
Following her stint at the foundation, she returned to Keene in 2013. It’s said you can never go home again, but Lehman says what drew her back was her coterie of close friends, a group of eight women. “Strangely, six of them are all from the Midwest,” she says, with only two from the Northeast. For her 70th birthday, seven of them took a week-long trip together to Croatia.
“Joyce is fearless and a relentless traveler. She’s also very religious,” says Mary Louise Caffrey, a retired Keene attorney and one of the two friends from the Northeast. “She is such a good friend.”
Caffrey relates a story about Lehman calling her from Kabul. “Hey, if you need any carpets, I’m here with my favorite carpet guy, and you can tell us what you want,” Caffrey remembers Lehman saying.
“She brought the carpet back home to us in her carry-on bag,” Caffrey says, laughing.
Travel, of course, is a constant for Lehman, with about six international trips annually, and an equal number of domestic treks. In all, she travels about 40 percent of the year. She’s also taken a number of cross-country drives with either friends or her daughter. And she’s in the process of writing a book about her life’s travels and endeavors.
“I could write a whole book just about the kindness of strangers,” she says. “People are basically good.”
Lehman ends with a quote that she read somewhere, supposedly from a commencement speaker, although she does not recall who it was or where it was uttered. But she uses it as perhaps a template for her life.
“The gates of fate swing on the hinges of the inconsequential.”