Faith Of Our Founder
Good morning everyone. I thank you for being here today to honor the 141st Founder’s Day at Ohio Northern. While I did not do exhaustive research on past Founder’s Day Celebrations, I did enough to realize that the tradition of a Chapel message on this day goes back many years and speakers from both inside and outside the university have shared their thoughts and reflections. Last year, to commemorate this day, an actor portrayed H. S. Lehr. I can assure you that there will be far less drama today.
Nonetheless, it is fitting that we celebrate the vision and accomplishments of our founder today, and I hope that you will take away from this service a deeper sense of what H.S. Lehr began 141 years ago.
I find it truly remarkable and incredibly inspirational to know that our great University evolved from the power of one: one single vision of one single man. And, I am grateful that his faith in God served as a sustaining presence in his life. Both his educational vision and his enduring faith are important to recall, for they exemplify a person who let his life speak.
The Lehrs were of strong Pennsylvania German stock, and Henry, who was born in 1838, was the 11th and youngest child of his parents, who settled in rural northeast Ohio. The family business was weaving carpets and linens, a business that was not very successful resulting in the family experiencing the hardships of poverty. The spoken language at home was German, and it wasn’t until Henry was 12 years old that he would sporadically attend school and learn to speak English.
It is fortunate for us, that Lehr’s biography shaped his destiny. Because from his own unique experience as a pupil and student, the concept of the school he started here germinated in his mind Thus, his own personal education formed an essential part of the founding and the history of Ohio Northern University.
Sometimes witnessing something done badly can be a motivator for making it better. Lehr’s early educational encounters with not very competent teachers coupled with all the obstacles he had to surmount in getting an even a fragmentary elementary schooling made an indelible impression on his memory. These disappointments served to nourish a drive to do something about it - to devise and establish the means of improving public schools by providing prospective teachers with a practical and inexpensive way to become capable teachers. I love the irony we can find in how Lehr’s experience with ineffective teaching has, over time, established a University with a legacy of teaching excellence.
At the Lehr Memorial Statue dedication on October 6, 2007, Professor John Lomax provided the audience with insights into the man, noting that Lehr was unusually smart, resourceful, and clear-sighted. Three stories about his life illustrate just how smart, resourceful and clear-sighted he was.
The first story is about Lehr’s intelligence and the early challenges of finding qualified teachers in the Midwest during the pre and post-Civil War era. It reveals how unevenly prepared public school teachers were back then in the 1850s.
When Lehr was only 16 years old, he was among 52 applicants to sit for the teaching certificate examination of his day. He was one of the youngest applicants, and several others had been teaching for 20 years or more. The certifying test was an oral exam and each applicant was quizzed in turn. In time, the presiding examiner asked the following question, “What is a ratio?” 40 of the 52 applicants did not know. Henry Lehr did. On the basis of his answer to that question and many other correct responses, he earned his certificate to teach, enabling him to gain further experience that would prove valuable in forming his educational vision and shaping his desire to start a teacher training institution.
Thus, teacher preparation is the one programmatic thread that runs through ONU’s entire history, from our Normal School roots to today’s complex University that supports the Center for Teacher Education, its faculty and staff, and our 175 teacher education students. It is a wonderful coincidence that this very week our own teacher preparation program is undergoing an accreditation review site visit from NCATE. I am sure that Henry is up in heaven smiling and expecting us to pass our review with flying colors, as we will surely do.
The second story is about his compassion and a temporary detour from pursuing a career in education.
After Lehr returned from military service during the Civil War where he was a nurse in an army hospital, a doctor in Alliance, OH asked him to be an apprentice and learn the practice medicine. He accepted the offer. But one day when the doctor was out, a young man with a broken bone was brought to the office, and Lehr quickly set the bone as he had done in the army hospital many times during the war. Because the patient was very poor and the procedure so insignificant given Lehr’s previous medical experience, Henry did not charge him. When the doctor returned and discovered the patient was not charged, he grew indignant and angry with Lehr. The severe reprimand made him wonder about staying on as an apprentice, and he soon took a teaching position in a nearby school. Medicine’s loss proved ONU’s gain.
The third and final story is about his faith and about how school prayer is not just a fairly recent school controversy.
H.S. Lehr was an exceptionally devout Christian. A measure of his love of God and his passion for education is that, after only two years in Ada, he taught Sunday school classes in each one of the local Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches. The Sabbath was not a day of rest for him, but rather a day to share the word of God and to educate.
The reason that Lehr landed in Ada in the first place was that the public school here agreed to his terms. They hired him to teach school in the day and also permitted him to start a private “select school” in the evening. That evening school would become Northwestern Ohio Normal University and, eventually, morph into Methodist-related Ohio Northern University.
From his first day as a school teacher, Lehr began each new class day at 8:30 am with a reading from the Bible and a short prayer. But within about two weeks, the school board members told him that some of the school patrons objected to these devotions, whereupon he proposed that school open at 8:00 am, but those who objected to the devotions need not come until 8:30. Clear-minded in his faith and resourceful in the face of conflict - no wonder he was an effective University president!
As a University president of a starter school, Lehr faced many challenges and burdens. At times, he could surely relate to the words in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I – “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” Nonetheless, he persevered with sure and steady composure.
Among the words he found most comforting during times of storm and stress were the following: ‘He is the most successful who bears the heaviest burdens cheerfully; who is calmest and most fearless under menaces and frowns; whose reliance on truth, on virtue, on God, is most unfaltering.” And these words from the Bible – “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty (Proverbs 16:32). Comforting and wise words for today as well.
Speaking of today, I have been wondering recently: What would H. S. Lehr think if he came back to our present day campus. No doubt, he would look in wonder at how this university, his university, has been transformed over the many decades.
He would surely marvel as he strolled these grounds, looking at a campus of many building instead of just a few.
What would catch his eye first? Our newer facilities perhaps, Mathile, or Dicke, or maybe the Observatory or the Kroger Kiosk? I think he might actually disapprove of so much student housing on campus, because he thought students should live as boarders with families in the Village of Ada.
Lehr’s 19th century notion that students should take any course at any time might be given new meaning in the plugged in, online, digital 21st century. But I have no idea what he would think of an IPhone!
One of the qualities I admire most about H.S. Lehr is his willingness to innovate and take risks; he was a person who saw future opportunities in current challenges. In this sense, Lehr is very much in tune with our times. His leadership in embracing professional education other than teaching, such as engineering, law, and pharmacy, and for paving the way for the arts and the literary societies was truly visionary and still gives ONU much of our distinctiveness.
What strikes me today when I read about the early days here and the many pioneers who persevered on behalf of ONU is how much it all required a leap of faith; success was by no means guaranteed. But H.S. Lehr and others were determined it was the right way to go, and they applied the full measure of their considerable talents to make it work.
And so, when I think about how Lehr would view his tour of today’s ONU campus, I imagine that our founding father would flash an appreciative smile.
He would applaud us for pursuing ambitious endeavors, such as successfully completing the $100 million fundraising campaign, and for innovative programs such as engineering education and pharmaceutical business to name just two.
But beyond that and our impressive facilities, beyond the classrooms and laboratories, the Freed Center, and King Horn, Lehr would also see a very different campus population. I am sure he—and his wife, Albina for that matter, would be cheered by the tremendously talented student body and the people that comprise the soul of this university. Because he would know what we know: that it is in these human resources – our people- that ONU is truly blessed.
I have dwelt today on matters and occurrences of days gone by. I don't usually do that. I enjoy history immensely, but I also like to look forward. I appreciate what those who came before us have done, and my impulse is to build on that as we look to the future.
It is important to understand our past. Learning about the people who founded, shaped, and nurtured our institutions offers not only a window on the past, but also a reflection on us. Throughout the arc of our history, ONU has survived difficult times, we have grown, adapted, and evolved, and we will flourish in the years and decades ahead.
I am glad that our University is heir to Lehr’s legacy. It is a legacy of faith and action, of vision and passion. I believe it demonstrates that future greatness here truly lies in our ability to come together, unite, and to be in community as a singular institution.
We are proud of what H.S. Lehr started 141 years ago. But far more important is that we are now responsible for what Lehr started 141 years ago.
And as responsible heirs to his legacy, we must be faithful to our founder, and in so doing, be faithful to our God.
Happy Founder’s Day!