Recipient Biography

Orin Lehman

Orin Lehman (1921-2008) received the Pugsley Medal in 1989. He was Commissioner of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation from 1975 to 1993, which is the longest period that any individual has served in that position.
Lehman was born into a wealthy family since his grandfather founded the Lehman Brothers investment house. He started his working life in the company but concluded, "I had some money, and I didn't want to devote my life to making money. My role model was Herbert Lehman, a great-uncle, a very kindly man who was proud to be a liberal." Herbert Lehman was New York's governor during the Depression and later was a US senator.
Lehman grew up in Tarrytown on the Hudson on a farm. Later in life, he observed, "People who have lived in lovely places tend to love the environment." He graduated from Princeton University and subsequently earned master's and doctorate degrees in American history from New York University. This was an especially useful background to have when historical responsibilities were added to the traditional state parks and recreation portfolio while he was the agency's commissioner. Indeed, one of his most lasting achievements was helping to enact and implement the New York State Historic Preservation Act of 1980. This was New York's counterpart to the National Register of Historic Places and ensured that historic preservation was integrated into the state's environmental review processes.
In World Ward II, Lehman was an Army pilot with the rank of captain, whose mission was to be a pilot observer for the field artillery. He was badly wounded in Germany, losing one leg and partial use of the other leg and, as a result, used crutches for the rest of his life. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart. One consequence of this influence was a lifelong interest in the welfare of the disabled. In 1947, he joined Eleanor Roosevelt and two others in founding "Just One Break" (JOB), whose mission was to find competitive employment for people with disabilities in order to assist them in living independently. That mission has remained unchanged, and JOB has expanded. It is the nation's oldest not-forĀ­ profit employment service for people with disabilities, and over half a century after founding it, Orin Lehman remained chairman of its board of directors. The founding of JOB was the beginning of a prolonged involvement in social issues relating to the disabled and discrimination against them in housing.
Lehman's first public appointment came in 1950 when President Truman appointed him to the advisory board of the Economic Cooperation Administration where he succeeded Herbert Lehman. In 1952, while still an associate in the Lehman Brothers firm, he was designated New York City's "Outstanding Young Man of the Year" by the Junior Chamber of Commerce. He was active in New York public life and, in 1965, unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination for New York City Controller. In 1966, he lost a special election for a US Congressional seat.
While prominently engaged in public life, Lehman explored a variety of careers including producing Broadway plays, teaching college, serving as an economic adviser to the US mission at the United Nations, heading the Corrections Board in New York City, and publishing weekly newspapers. He considered this breadth of experience to be one of the strengths that he brought to the position of commissioner of parks. He was an early supporter in the successful campaign of Governor Hugh Carey. After Carey was elected, he appointed Lehman as New York State's third commissioner of parks and recreation, and he was subsequently re-appointed by Governor Mario Cuomo. Lehman stated, "It's one of the few positions that I really would have taken in state government. This job was very appealing to me because historic preservation is an important part of our agency, and history has always been a great interest of mine. I was in the theater business, and we do have quite a bit of arts in our parks."
He presided over the department during a difficult financial era. There were 150 parks in the system, together with 34 historic sites and 74 boat launching areas. In 1975, there were 2,300 park staff, but when he retired, this number had been reduced to 1,500. Thus, his main focus was to shield the parks from budget cuts to the extent that this was possible. In a 1981 hearing at the New York Legislature, Lehman observed:
When I first became commissioner, I visited every park in the state system. Even then, the impending crisis in our parks was readily apparent. It was obvious that major changes in priorities were in order. So from that time on, our emphasis has been upon the rehabilitation of existing facilities rather than on the acquisition and development of new ones.
Despite pressures to increase revenues, he insisted on keeping prices low so parks remained affordable to all the public. At the same time, visitation increased substantially. Although conditions were difficult, he succeeded in opening a few new parks, most notably, Riverbank in Harlem (built along the Hudson River on top of the 28-acre roof of the North River Water Treatment Plant). He improved many others and added historic preservation to the park's mission.
Lehman had a reputation for honesty and for keeping patronage out of the parks. He noted that the governors he served under all allowed him to select the most qualified people for positions, but noted wryly, "When I first came, we had a few battles with the Appointments Office, but over the years we've developed a good deal of respect for each other. I think that's one thing that would force me to resign from the job if I were told to hire unqualified political appointees."
He was variously described as "tall, sandy-haired and soft-spoken" and as "a quiet, rather introverted, patrician gentleman." Henry Stem, who for many years was his peer as parks commissioner in New York City stated, "There are no funny stories about Orin Lehman. This was a very decent, earnest fellow, a defender of parks."
Winerip, M. (1993, June 27). Quiet steward says farewell to his parks. New York Times, 7 p. 25.