By Dan Miller
Gladys Lehman was an accomplished artist.
But that’s not why she was beloved as a teacher at Middletown Area High School.
She was so admired that the Class of 1971 dedicated its school yearbook to Lehman, an English teacher who led the English department.
“A trim figure bicycling briskly around town … her classroom invitingly warm even on cold, dreary mornings … a friendly, becoming smile and sincere ‘Good morning’ personally welcoming us,” reads the dedication in the 1971 yearbook to Lehman. “Unknowingly, she disproves the generation gap, as in each of her classes she reaches and involves even the most disinterested students.”
Lehman was a Middletown Area School District teacher for 30 years, from 1941 until she retired in 1971. She died in 1988 at age 79.
Recently, a collection of water colors that Lehman painted was donated to the Middletown Area Historical Society by the Stoops family, who was close to Lehman.
After Lehman died, her water colors were equally divided up among the donor and her two sisters.
One of the sisters recently moved to Florida and could not take the paintings with her, so the family decided to donate them to the society.
Lehman’s collection totals about 25 water colors, including those donated to the society.
Lehman never meant to sell any of them, said the donor, who did not wish to be identified. Lehman had painted “all of her life,” the donor said. “It was just one of the things she loved to do.”
The family will probably donate more of Lehman’s paintings to the society, although the donor could not say how soon.
The society has hung Lehman’s paintings on a wall of its museum at 29 E. Main St.
The paintings are being exhibited publicly in time for Homecoming weekend this Saturday, to attract alumni expected to be in town for the event, society trustee Jenny Miller told the Press & Journal.
The society expects to run the exhibit of Lehman’s watercolors at least through the holiday season.
Several of her paintings on display are of historic houses and churches, such as Stoverdale United Methodist on Middletown Road and St. Peter’s Kierch at Union and High streets in town.
One of the donated watercolors is of Swatara Park, the amusement park that used to be on the other side of Swatara Creek across from Schoolhouse Road, until the bridge to the park was wiped out by Agnes in 1972.
You could get in the park for free, and ride the rides all day for just $3, said John Ziats, a member of the Middletown Class of 1971.
Ziats doesn’t remember having Lehman as a teacher. But he knew her well growing up in Middletown because Lehman lived next door.
She was “a very, very nice lady” who loved gardening. She had beautiful plants, Ziats said.
Each year when her perennials bloomed, she’d invite Ziats and his sister over to cut some flowers to share with their family.
Lehman tutored students who were having a hard time with grammar and English. Ziats credits Lehman with tutoring his uncle so he wouldn’t be held back a year.
Lehman kept that sort of thing confidential, for the sake of the student, Ziats said.
Beyond academics, she was known among the students as someone they could go to, if they were struggling with an issue or a problem and needed to talk.
“People knew they could go to her and she would do whatever she could to help them in a way that was strictly between the two individuals,” Ziats said.
Two of Lehman’s paintings at the museum are of clowns — something for which Lehman had a passion.
Lehman had a large collection of clown figurines in her home. Ziats recalls Sue Neiman, a former director of Middletown Public Library where Ziats works, telling Ziats she once told Lehman of her admiration for her clown collection.
After Lehman died in 1988, Neiman was contacted by an attorney handling Lehman’s estate. Lehman had willed the clown figurines to Neiman. They were packed away in cardboard cartons that were delivered to Neiman, Ziats said.
Neiman had probably made what she thought was only a passing reference to the clown figurines, but “that just goes to show her attention to detail,” Ziats said.
Donna Thompson taught at Middletown Area High School with Lehman for two years before Lehman retired.
But Thompson knew Lehman better from being a student of hers.
“She was one of the top teachers. She was wonderful and the kids loved her. She was fair, she was strict, but not super-strict. I can’t remember anybody not liking her,” Thompson said.
The English grammar lessons Lehman taught made a lifelong impression. To this day, Thompson cringes whenever she hears someone say “our life.”
Our is plural, so it’s “our lives,” Thompson said. The two must agree. That was from Gladys Lehman.
When Thompson took an entrance exam to get into college, she was complimented on her knowledge of English.
“You can put that all on Ms. Lehman,” Thompson said.
When Thompson became a teacher, at first substituting in the high school, it was a special thing to her that she was teaching in the same building as Lehman, who was nearing the end of her career.
“She said she was looking forward to retiring because there were things she did not have time to do that she wanted to do,” Thompson said.
Today, Thompson assumes painting was one of those things, as Thompson does not recall hearing anything about Lehman being an artist when she was a teacher.
Thompson taught 39 years, including her last 23 years spent as librarian of the high school library.
Lehman never married. Thompson recalls Lehman as being “energetic” even after retiring. She could be seen riding her bicycle all over town.
Barbara Brunner was a home economics teacher at Middletown Area High School, just starting out as Lehman was a few years from retiring.
“As a starting teacher there was Ms. Lehman and a few others” who were the role models, Brunner said. “You wanted to be that competent, to be an excellent teacher like they were. They were just so professional about it.”
Lehman and the other experienced teachers were held in great respect, almost awe, by Brunner and the other new teachers.
“We would have never called her Gladys — it was ‘Ms. Lehman,’” Brunner said. “They were like the pillars of the school. You would never presume to call them by their first name.”
Reading her obituary in the May 11, 1988 Middletown Press & Journal, you wouldn’t know anything of her multiple passions — for gardening, clowns, bicycling, painting, and for her students.
Perhaps that’s as Lehman wanted it. She wasn’t one to call attention to herself, Ziats said.
“She was a very unassuming person who didn’t like a lot of notoriety,” he said.