James Lehr Kennedy receiving an honorary doctorate from Ohio Northern University.

Ohio Northern University is saddened to share the news that Dr. James Lehr Kennedy, the great-grandson of our founder Henry Solomon Lehr and an influential University leader in his own right, died on Tuesday, Feb. 15 at his home in Columbus, Ohio.

As we celebrate our sesquicentennial anniversary, the ONU community will always be grateful to Jim and the legacy he generously furthered. His vision, commitment and innovation have shaped the University in ways that will always positively impact our campus and the world.

Ohio Northern President Dan DiBiasio described Jim as “truly a friend to all of ONU. His love for this institution and the pride he felt from his special family connection meant the world to him, and he meant the world to us.” 

Jim’s great grandfather founded ONU in 1871. As a child, Jim spent many summers with his grandmother, Sara Lehr Kennedy, in Ada, Ohio, where he learned about his great grandfather and the educational institution he built. In adulthood, he served on ONU’s board of trustees for 23 years and became a Life Member of ONU’s giving society named after his great grandfather, the Henry Solomon Lehr Society. In 2017, ONU awarded him an honorary doctorate of business.

Like his great-grandfather, Jim dedicated his life to making the world a better place, and he lived a life of humility and kindness. He was an entrepreneur who built three successful companies; an inventor who developed the industry standard for a disaster-alert system; an artist who created beautiful works of glass; and a philanthropist who helped many projects, including ONU’s engineering building, come to fruition. His accomplishments were fueled by his insatiable curiosity and firm belief in the power of ideas. 

ONU’s James Lehr Kennedy Engineering Building, which opened in fall 2019, serves as a grand visual and functional representation of Lehr’s ideology. Designed and built to embrace open spaces, natural light, clean lines and state-of-the-art technology for collaboration and inspiration, the building puts ONU on the cutting edge of engineering education. Jim was the lead benefactor of the building with an eight-figure gift commitment, and the building now and forever bears his name. Additionally, he created, donated and personally oversaw the assembly of the “Tower of Inspiration,” a magnificent glass sculpture in the building’s atrium.

Jim received his bachelor of science in economics from the College of Wooster and a master’s degree in economics and MBA from The Ohio State University. He founded the multinational company, Twenty First Century Communications, which he later sold, and also founded two additional companies, Next Future, LLC, and Crystal Remembrance. He was a part-time lecturer in economics at Ohio State for 12 years, instructing more than 6,000 students.

 A frequent visitor to ONU, Jim recently utilized his company Next Future Films to produce an extraordinary feature-length documentary of ONU’s journey from its founding to present day. This past holiday season, he donated a Christmas tree display for campus that launched a new campus tradition of a tree lighting ceremony.

Jim once stated that he felt blessed to be able to support the institution started by his great-grandfather 150 years ago. His humble words are a reminder that we can all make a difference. “As an ONU trustee, I’ve seen the continuum,” he stated. “There are many people who’ve supported the University through the years, helping it to flourish and become what it is today. It’s an ongoing legacy that’s greater than any one person.”