Today Cal Lehman is content. At 85, the Starr alumnus reflects on his life with a sense of pride while recalling his accomplishments.
“You don’t need to be a CEO of a big company to be successful,” Lehman said. “I have a lot to be grateful for. I just hope I can give something back.”
He wasn’t always so satisfied. In fact he said he used to be very hard on himself, too much of a perfectionist. He views himself as a run-of-the-mill guy, but the circumstances he faced as a child make his story anything but average.
Lehman grew up in South Haven, Michigan. He describes his father as distant, a man who didn’t seem to have time for his children. This led to Lehman acting out, running away from home on multiple occasions. His mother was the stabilizing factor in the family, he recalls, but even she couldn’t handle his increasingly poor behavior.
His first experiences with school were negative as well. Lehman recalls a first-grade teacher who tried to get the left-hander to write with his right hand. He refused, and she sent him off to the corner of the room.
“For the simple fact that I was left-handed, I was removed from the rest of the class,” Lehman said. “I was treated as different, and that was a humiliating experience for me. It was something as simple as that event that led to me disliking school.”
School challenges coupled with his troubling situation at home created a toxic environment all around.
“My parents recognized that I was having problems socializing and with my attitude,” Lehman said. “I was not happy at home or in school, so my parents began looking into programs. Through the grape vine they heard about Starr, so my parents took a trip and spoke to some of the staff.”
Once Lehman arrived at Starr in 1944, his attitude began to change. He began relating to the boys with whom he lived, and he was surrounded by caring adults.
He joined the choir, played sports and even became an honorary driver for Floyd Starr, a position he coveted but would eventually lose because of a poor decision.
“That really taught me a valuable lesson,” Lehman said. “I had something taken away that I really cared about. It was discipline at the right time for me. You don’t always get that at home. I definitely learned from it.”
After two years at Starr, Lehman and his family determined he was ready to come home. He would later realize it was too soon to leave the program. He enlisted in the Air Force and would serve from 1946-49, traveling overseas to Asia before returning to Michigan.
Upon returning home, where Lehman would live until getting married, the problems that occurred prior to Starr began to reemerge. He finished his high school requirements, married his wife, Donna, and began his career.
Lehman worked in furniture sales for many years, moving out of state for a period of time before eventually returning to Michigan. Tragically his wife would pass away at a young age, due in part to complications stemming from rheumatic fever she had as a child. The couple never had children.
“Losing my wife was a hard time, of course,” Lehman said. “For a while there, I just didn’t care anymore. It was hard to overcome that moment in my life.”
But throughout his difficult experiences, Lehman leaned heavily on memories of his time at Starr.
“Starr is always in the background,” Lehman said. “With every aspect of my life, I’m always thinking about Starr. It was so structured, exactly what I needed at the time. We learned a certain way to make the bed, where you pull the sheet on the corner and tuck it so it’s perfect. I still do that today. You can never forget something that was so meaningful.”
Lehman has supported Starr through donations for several years, but he wasn’t engaged with any staff members for much of that time. Upon receiving a call from a member of Starr’s development team, Lehman got back in touch with the organization that has meant so much to him.
In October 2013, he attended Starr’s 100th anniversary Founder’s Day celebration with a friend who encouraged him to go. It was his first time back at Starr since his days as a student.
“My friend persuaded me to come to Founder’s Day, and I’m so glad I did,” Lehman said. “He was so impressed with Starr, and for someone to see it for the first time like he did, I was happy that he was so impressed. It felt really good for me to be back. I had no idea the extent of all the changes that Starr has made, from working with autism to everything else. It’s wonderful.”
Because of his experience as a student at Starr and what it has meant to him, Lehman has generously included Starr in his estate plans. He said despite the changes and advancements in society since his time at Starr, this work is still very necessary.
“I want to give back to the organization that has done so much for me,” Lehman said. “It would be the most important thing I’ve ever done, to give back, to help children. Floyd was so passionate, so sincere in his caring for troubled kids that he dedicated his life to it. Today that is still true. Everything they do at Starr is for the good of people. You can’t ask for more than that.”