Elliot Lehman, a longtime summer resident of Chilmark, died on May 5, 2016, at home in Wilmette, Ill., following a recent stroke. He was 97.
Elliot was born at home in the Bronx on Jan. 10, 1919. His father, Saul, emigrated from near Bialystok in present-day Poland at the age of 13, and went into business in New York as a printer; his mother, Esther, born on the Lower East Side, had previously worked as a corset buyer at Gimbel’s. After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in New York in 1934, Elliot matriculated at the University of Wisconsin, where he met a redheaded Chicagoan named Frances Mecklenburger, and graduated in 1938 with a degree in journalism. Elliot and Frances were married in 1940. During the Second World War, Elliot served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, commanding a wooden submarine chaser in the South Pacific theater. Although he never saw combat, he survived three typhoons.
After the war, Elliot and Frances moved to Highland Park, Ill., and Elliot resumed his career at his wife’s family business, the Felt Products Manufacturing Co., later known as Fel-Pro, a manufacturer of gaskets and sealants. Following his father-in-law’s death in 1961, Elliot served as Fel-Pro’s co-chairman for three decades, and remained co-chairman emeritus until the company was sold in 1998. He built Fel-Pro gaskets to a dominant position in supplying both heavy-duty trucks and the automotive aftermarket. Fel-Pro achieved repeated recognition for its progressive workplace practices — “from womb to tomb,” as Elliot sometimes said. They included a savings bond for employees’ newborns, onsite daycare, and a summer day camp for employees’ children. In 1993, Elliot was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
Elliot was a tireless civic leader, dedicated to the communities in which he lived and worked and to inclusion and justice in the world around him. From 1972 to 1977, he chaired the board of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest as it fought the Gautreaux case to desegregate and deconcentrate public housing in Chicago. He served as founding president of Project TEAM, a program that trained socially disadvantaged young people to become automotive mechanics. He also served on the boards of, among others, the Jewish Children’s Bureau, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, Voices for Illinois Children, Winning Workplaces, and Working in the Schools.
The Lehmans first visited Martha’s Vineyard in 1963, and in 1976 built a house on Prospect Hill in Chilmark, the backdrop for many happy family memories. Although he was never much of a sailor after his time in the Navy, Elliot loved spending time at the beach and, especially, on the tennis court, and cherished the many friends he made across 49 summers on the Vineyard.
For Elliot — “Ellio,” to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren — family came first. Every week he would write a note, to children away at school and later to grandchildren at summer camp, filled with news and musings. “There’s a new psychoanalytic theory,” he wrote in his letter of Jan. 10, 1971, “that calls for the death of the family — the family being described as the most tyrannical of entities — reducing independence and perpetuating the flaws of the past. This is a dopey theory which I not only eschew but deplore. My family is where it’s at.”
Elliot is survived by Frances, his wife of 75 years; three children, Kenneth Lehman (Lucy Lehman) of Evanston, Ill., Kay Lehman Schlozman (Stanley Schlozman) of Brookline and Chilmark, and Paul Lehman (Ronna Stamm) of Evanston; eight grandchildren, Betsy Lehman Levisay (Justin Levisay) of Evanston, Ill., Amy Lehman (Michele Rugani) of Chicago, Ill., Peter Lehman (Mary Liz Lehman) of Chicago, Daniel Schlozman of Baltimore, Md., and Chilmark, Julia Schlozman of Detroit, Mich., and Chilmark, Jonathan Lehman (Zachary Huelsing) of Chicago, Michael Lehman of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Elizabeth Lehman (Kathleen Moody) of Austin, Texas; and six great-grandchildren, Benjamin, Charles, and Audrey Levisay of Evanston, Maxwell Lehman of Chicago, and Madeleine and Molly Lehman of Chicago.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be sent to Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, 25 East Washington Street, Suite 1515, Chicago, IL 60602; or to Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, 111 Edgartown Road, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.